I thought again the other day about these death verbs after hearing a woman on an HGTV television program say that her cat had “passed away.”
Although synonymous, “die” and “pass away” and “pass” don’t have the same impact, and the latter two can confuse readers or listeners.
Avoiding euphemisms sometimes requires courage.
One could argue that “pass away” has a religious origin as a euphemism for “die” and therefore that “pass away” is a valid substitute.
However, it is worthwhile to know that clinical social workers are taught that their clients who use “pass away” often have a harder time with working through the death of a loved one than those clients who use the plain-spoken verb “die”.
Can a dog or cat “pass away”, given the religious origin of the phrase? I doubt it, but maybe I am confused about the religious origin.
Or maybe the woman who said that her cat “passed away” simply was more comfortable with this than saying that her cat “died” — what she really meant but maybe did not have the courage to face.
It is worthwhile to know, too, that “pass away” is not commonly used throughout the entire world of English speakers. The verb “die” does not have this problem.
You can confuse even more people when you say “pass” instead of “pass away”.
For example, “He passed last night.” will invite curious stares from some listeners. “He passed what?” they will ask. “Passed gas? Passed a kidney stone? Came by your home?”
I believe that the use of “pass” as a death verb has two origins:
- It’s essentially a euphemism of a euphemism, letting the speaker or writer take two steps away from saying or writing “die” (the dreaded ‘D’ word!).
- It is simpler to say “pass” than to say “pass away”; this is further proof of my “Devolution toward Simpler” linguistic hypothesis.
Use “die” wherever possible. Use “pass away” in religious contexts, if you know that your readers or listeners understand this euphemism. Do not use “pass” as a substitute for “pass away”; you will confuse many people!