Finding America

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The Oxford scholar, Robert Burton, once wrote that "the fear of death is worse than death." Burton's reasoning might explain why humans are so good at coining euphemisms for the act of dying; over the years, there have been numerous phrases added to the English language for the very purpose of softening this inevitable part of life.

As ever, of course, the British are almost unmatched when it comes to the inventiveness and/or humour of such phrases, with many more existing than those listed below. However, what you are about to read are those phrases that—while admittedly in lesser usage today—failed to enter the American vernacular in their heyday.

Here are 5 British slang phrases for dying that never caught on in the U.S.

1. Pop one's clogs
19th century slang. When a working man (often a mill-worker) was close to death, his family would pop (an alternate word for pawn) his possessions at the pawn shop. Often to be found among these possessions were the man's clogs.

2. Come to a sticky end
Specifically, this phrase (also used in Australia) means to reach a sudden and unpleasant death. In Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio comes to a sticky end.

3. Go for a Burton
Disputed origin. 1. Prior to the war, the Burton Brewery ran an advertising campaign in which characters would explain the absence of another character by saying "he's gone for a Burton" (in other words, he's busy drinking beer). The phrase may have been mimicked by World War 2 pilots following the loss of a fellow serviceman. 2. Alternatively, these same pilots may have been forming another play on words; that of going to the medical practice above Montague Burton (the tailors).

4. Hop the twig
18th century slang. This phrase is first attested from 1797 via the Mary Robinson book Walsingham; or the Pupil of Nature. "He kept his bed three days, and hopped the twig on the fourth." Its meaning has changed over time and, in fact, used to simply mean go away. At the beginning of the 20th century, several similar phrases fell into usage: e.g. drop off the twig and hop the perch.

5. Bought it
World War 1 slang; largely archaic. Like a lot of brilliant idioms, this one was used euphemistically by military personnel during World War 1. Following the war, it was also used to soften peacetime deaths, though the phrase eventually fell out of use. However, around the middle of the 20th century, an equivalent form bought the farm (predominantly used by Americans) fell into usage.

What other euphemisms/slang phrases for death are there? Are there any American terms that never made it to Britain? Let us know in the comments below.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia and Smitten by Britain. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

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  1. There's also "Copped a packet,", "Had 'is Chips and "Lost his Teeth," The latter being an old military one going back to the Napoleonic Wars when the dead had their teeth extracted to provide dentures for the well off.

  2. Erm, not quite ...

    2. Come to a sticky end; mostly heard among older people, but definitely out there.
    3. Have heard "fallen off the twig" fairly regularly in the Northeast.
    5. Bought it: commonly heard among peopl 40+ ("It" being "the farm." "Did the Sarge make it through that barrage of shrapnel?" "Nah, he bought the farm.")

  3. In the British-Scottish film "X the Unknown", a soldier uses the phrase "passed over the new" for someone who died.

  4. Never heard of any twig reference but you should check out Viz comic's Suicidal Syd for others.


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