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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