The 'D' Word

March 20, 2021

Alright, there’s a mighty elephant in the room here, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it: death. Yep, death. I know, I know! We just don’t like thinking about it, never mind talking about it.


Well actually, we talk about it all the time out of context. “You’re going to freeze to death”, “he’s going to be the death of me”, “I feel like death warmed up”, and “they’ve [played that song] to death” are just a few of the idioms we hear day in day out, and yet in that sense, the actual concept of death has been so far removed we don’t even consider it. We obscure our own mortality by cloaking it in a way that allows us to disassociate from the reality that our bodies have an expiration date. I get it – it’s just super hard to talk about. I know among my friends it’s something we don’t speak of because ultimately, we just don’t like thinking about it. Although I have to say, we do quite frequently, and ever so dramatically use turns of phrase such as the aforementioned.


While we are so quick to speak of dying in such a light-hearted, flippant and superficial way, when it comes to literally talking about death, the fear of it is so widespread amidst our culture, the English language has adopted a plenitude of ways to refer to it without actually using the word itself. English is a rich language. We have an incredibly extensive vocabulary with infinite synonyms, which means that for centuries we have traded in blunt language for euphemisms that allow us to dance around the topic of death. We can be sensitive in our approach, “he didn’t make it” or “she’s at peace now”, or we can remove emotion altogether – “dropping like flies”, “kicked the bucket”, “popped his clogs” and “six feet under”.


But why are we always looking for new and glossier ways to talk about death? If truth be told, there isn’t just one factor that’s contributed to the evolution of euphemisms. For some, it may arise from superstition, for many it's out of sensitivity, but for most, I think it’s just too heavy a topic to talk about so openly and candidly. If we look at it in the simplest of terms, the verb ‘to die’ is harshly transparent but entirely without nuance. It provides no further information, which in some cases euphemisms do. For example when a mobster says, “he’s wearing concrete shoes,” you don’t need me to tell you what he’s implying.


We’ve coined so many new terms for the process of death, we have a vast array of options when choosing our language in relation to our environment. If we’re telling someone close to us that a family member has died, we will pick discourse that will protect the listener. We look for more gentle ways to deliver the news of death in an attempt to cushion the blow despite the grief of the situation. Of course, we don’t want to be rude and offensive or add to the pain someone is feeling by being too direct, but we also reasonably and selfishly want to avoid discomfort too, and so using indirect language eases anxiety in an already unsettling situation. What’s more, if we’re in mourning, vocalising a situation can be difficult when we're struggling to cope. Often when we're in the initial stages of dealing with emotional trauma we can be in denial until we gradually become ready to face reality.


Historically, death was a pretty taboo topic to speak of socially but then the millennials came along. Growing up in the digital age, millennials have adopted a dark humour when speaking about death. The chaotic form of comedy is plastered across the internet in ever-popular memes which seem to be rooted in a sense of pointless dread. It can be argued that these popular captioned images are a true reflection of the current economic climate, which has delayed milestones like marriage, kids, and homeownership for many of that generation. With external sources of meaning such as religion vastly fading away, a new outlet for young adults comes in the form of crazy internet memes.


Actually, to brand them as crazy is both problematic and unfair. While the fashioned online jokes could be misconstrued as being overly dramatic and attention-seeking, this new form of comedy is embroidered with truths. That’s not to say every millennial is wistfully wishing for the sweet embrace of death, but these dark gags stem from modern realities that a generation deeply cares about. For example, the significant drop in income plus the bucket loads of additional learning that must be obtained to acquire the same job roles as their parents. Moreover, we are always hearing about the increase of jobs without young professionals being acknowledged for holding down multiple roles in order to pay their extortionate rent prices. We have heard about a booming stock market although it has little to no impact on millennials as for the majority, their salaries make it impossible for them to own any investments. From the offset it looks like they’re poking fun at the generation disparity, but essentially it comes down to something much more serious.


Just this morning I saw an Instagram post that read, “I love how millennials are associated with avocado toast and selfies instead of the fact we all constantly joke about wanting to die”. It seems the rebellious comedy acts as a coping mechanism to openly talk about important topics like the mental health crisis and the climate crisis (which feels like an unwelcome time bomb on our lives that no one is doing anything about). So, while the future looks uncertain for a lot of the younger generations, by being able to address life’s present struggles on huge social media platforms, millennials are able to connect with others that feel the same while also helping stimulate a wider conversation that is provoking stronger feelings. Although they seem bold in their approach to openly discuss the ‘D’ word, – particularly in comparison with older age groups – they’re not the first to use humour as the initial driving force to broach taboo topics publicly.

Emily Davies

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