Passing over or dead?

Published 7:04 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2016

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Many country sayings have been left behind as American’s dialect and patterns of speech have become more and more influenced by first movies, then television and computers.

But every now and then — or now and again, as would be said in the country — a rural phrase becomes the norm.

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Not terribly long ago, obituaries reported the death of people. Today, however, most obituaries refer to the deceased as having “passed away.”

We have an aversion to looking death in the eye and this more passive and poetic reference to a family member’s death is understandable in that context.

Other country phrases have replaced “died” as well, and some of them can be quite colorful. “Passed over” is a clear reference to moving into another realm. In a local daily newspaper just this week we also found that references to people who had “departed this life” and “went to his Heavenly home.”

The death of a young person often brings a special reference to the sadness of that death, as a recent one did, declaring the deceased “left us too soon.”

But being an old sailor, my favorite recent obituary referred to the deceased having “stepped aboard the old ship of Zion.”

In all honesty, the changed language in newspaper obituaries is probably much more practical than poetic. Until a couple of decades ago, most newspapers published free obituaries and those obituaries followed newspaper style, set down by the Associated Press and, decades ago, United Press International. The style was formal and pretty arbitrary.

That has changed as the newspaper industry has struggled with declining revenues. Today, most newspapers charge for obituaries and allow a lot more flexibility in what is written. In fact, the flexibility is almost unlimited and it often includes the phrases above.

Obituary styles aside, though country folk always did avoid the use of the word “dead” when it came to referring to deceased family and friends.

County native Henry Doggett reminded me years ago of the tendency of country folk to speak of one who is deathly ill as “getting ready to go away from here.” And when that neighbor or relative had died, it was said that he was “gone away from here.”

A very similar phrase, it should be noted, has a very different meaning. “Get on away from here,” is quite similar to “gone away from here,” but the latter means “You don’t mean it!” or “I don’t believe that.”

Both phrases, by the way, are most likely to be shortened in Southeastern Virginia to something like “Get on way’m here” and “He’s gone way’m here.”