Friday, 25 November 2016

Euphemism and The Naming of Things

I've been working away on my next book.  It's a book about ritual.  Included in this is a chapter about the journey from cradle to grave that goes into all the well-known and commonly celebrated milestones and a few suggestions for others that aren't necessarily recognised as often.  Most of it has been fairly easy to write, but I found myself stopping at one and writing other parts of the book.  Over and over again.  I kept finding excuses and reasons to avoid writing about this bit.  Death.

I have been rather erratic in writing the last few parts of this book.  I think I've done most of the bits I'm passionate about and I'm working on the parts that I feel are important to include to make it a well-rounded book.  I value the information, but I'm less excited about it. Except for writing about death, I am passionate about that, but for some reason I just kept shying away from it.

Over the last few months, I've been getting nudged from all directions about finishing and publishing this book.  I've been told off for self-doubt, I've been nagged by admirers, I've had friends build me up and give me a well-deserved bollocking.  I've also had nudges from other powers.  Some I've made promises of writing for when this is finished.

So I sat down and started writing.  I came round to the Death part again.  I chose not to tackle it head on, but start by discussing superstitions, beliefs and expectations surrounding death.  So rather quickly it came to all the euphemisms commonly used around mortality.

I hate euphemisms. I'm a big fan of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  To say things like "left us" and "passed over" instead of "died" has always struck me as pussyfooting around the subject and trying to pretend that they're just sleeping and will wake up soon.  I put it out there to my facebook friends, trying to understand why using the actual words is considered tasteless, impolite and rude.

Most of the answers began along the lines of softening the blow and that death and dying are harsh words.  There were some about respect for the families and sensitivity for how they're feeling. There were the times when "karked it", "kicked the bucket" or "croaked" were considered appropriate.  Then there were the answers that made me sit up and pay attention.  They were answers that made sense of it all for me.  They fit neatly amongst beliefs I already held without realising that there'd been a part of the puzzle missing.

Naming is powerful magic.

This is a feature of many a fantasy story and folklore.  Magic users who know the true names of things gain power over those things.  Speaking an evil one's name is to attract their attention and can turn their gaze toward you.  Never name the well from which you will not drink.

Variations of this are obvious or sometimes hidden in common superstitions.  My Granny wouldn't have Arum lilies in the house unless there had been a death in the family.  They were a funeral flower and to bring them inside without an accompanying funeral was to invite Death in to take someone.
Touch (or knock on) wood when discussing the expected misfortune that passed you by. Don't bring particular baby gear into the house before the baby is born.

While someone dying or being pregnant seem to be fairly mundane evils, if evil they are, they can still be things that people fear, things that people don't want to attract more of and things that sometimes get anthropomorphic personifications.  The Grim Reaper and the Stork.  One brings life and the other takes it away.

In the answers to my question was a response from a very wise woman who has spent time on the Isle of Man.  She says that no Manx would say "rabbits" or "rats" for fear of the island being over run by them.  They call them "short-tailed fellows" and "long-tailed fellows" instead.  This one makes me smile rather than annoy me, it's less like the He Who Shall Not Be Named that gives what you fear power over you and more like the Gentry, Shining Ones and Good Neighbours.

Saying Their names aloud is an invitation.  If you're in a group, crowd or at a party and you hear your name spoken, you pay attention.  Sometimes you might go over to see if whoever said your name was calling you or talking behind your back.  This is no different.  They might come if you call and most sensible people really don't want Them to come visiting.  If They don't actually turn up, They may still turn Their attention towards you.  They may be listening.

A Fijian Indian told me that suicides are contagious.  There is a demon that hangs around a suicide and takes other young folk to keep their friend company.  I don't know if this is a Fijian belief or an Indian belief or specifically her belief - we were dealing with the suicide of a friend so the sources were unimportant at the time.  Looking back now, I see a similarity and a connection.  In my experience, there are no gentle euphemisms to explain suicide.  When someone has been informed that they've lost a loved one, a friend or a workmate, especially if it's sudden and unexpected, one of the first questions is "how?".  Usually the answer details the how, as in what method was used.  I can't think of a single time that has been softened with euphemism, although that may also possibly be because the friends I've lost to suicide were all boys and men.  Statistically, they tend to prefer more violent means.

I think most of us like to believe (even if we don't admit it) that we're immortal.  We say silly things that suggest we have some sort of control over the timing of our eventual demise, "I'm not getting life insurance at this stage, it's okay, I don't have any plans to die any time soon" or a favourite from an ex-boyfriend "I don't need to wear my safety gear on my motorbike, I'm not going to have an accident".  Facing our impending death usually scares us and generally speaking it's something we can't avoid thinking about when we've just lost someone.

All the euphemisms for Death have probably sprung from similar beliefs.  Death, the Grim Reaper, the Dark Angel, Mighty Thanatos has already come calling once, He might still be nearby.  Calling to Him might make Him take closer notice of you and yours, He could see something He overlooked the first time.  He might decide to take you or your partner or your child.

Best not to call.  Let Him carry on His way and pass the rest of us by.



No comments:

Post a Comment