Number one for English language teachers

Your English: Idioms: popping your clogs

Type: Reference material

Tim Bowen explains how euphemisms can help us talk about unpleasant or embarrassing topics.

Euphemisms are a rich source of idioms as people try desperately to avoid calling a spade a spade (being direct) or, worse still, causing offence. One of the great taboo subjects in Western culture is, of course, death, and various linguistic strategies are used to get around actually saying that someone has died. One of the most common is to say that someone is 'no longer with us', as in 'I’m sorry to say Uncle Peter is no longer with us'. Alternatively, the expression passed away or passed on can be used. This can, of course, lead to misunderstandings; in a business context it can mean that he no longer works for us, and it may also prompt the inappropriate (and potentially insensitive) response ‘Why? Where is he?’ It may be better to say that poor Uncle Peter has ‘passed away’ or ‘passed on’ or ‘gone to a better place’.

More colloquial non-euphemistic ways of saying die include kick the bucket (‘You’ll kick the bucket before long if you don't stop smoking'), pop your clogs ('When I pop my clogs you'll get all my money') and snuff it ('If I snuff it before you do, remember to put flowers on my grave, won’t you’).

Back in the world of euphemisms, you can break the news (inform) to a child that his/her favourite dog has died by saying ‘Blackie’s gone to the great kennel in the sky’. Depending on the previous interests of the dead person (or animal) concerned, the word kennel can be substituted by an almost limitless list of other locations (e.g. stadium, theatre, classroom, library or even pub).

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Readers' comments (1)

  • My darling mother-in-law also uses "fall off [one's] perch". She is now 87, and has told me that, "When I fall off my perch, dear, you shall have my [antique] Royal Doulton plant pot." I think we often use frivolity to cover embarrassment about an unpleasant topic.

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