No, we really are not wearing a wooden onesie

Use dead straight language when talking about death. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Use dead straight language when talking about death. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Over the past week I have been trying to channel my inner Joe Biden.

In my 70th year, I have a bit of catching up to do age-wise.

But I have been campaigning. Relentlessly (when I haven’t been drinking tea and reading the newspaper, which one of my grandsons reckons is all I do.)

It has been a one-woman crusade, at least the length of Joe’s political career.

Before I get into that, I need you to know I have some empathy for Joe.

I know what it is like to lose work on the whim of whoever was paying me to do it, and on one occasion it was partly because I was too old (in my 40s) for the demographic that particular newspaper was chasing.

But I could also recognise when it was time for me to go.

I realised that at the end of 2011, four and a-half years after I was invited to return to reporting with this newspaper following about a quarter of a century away from the job.

As Joe might say, I gave it my best shot, but felt I never really got up to speed, and while I wrote many stories, I spent far too much time on the job to the detriment of everything else.

As the queen of the worthy but dull, I struggled with the pressure to turn out stories I needed more time to think about, and I worried about what I saw then as a drift to trivia to gain online attention. I found that ludicrous since online readers then were not paying for the privilege.

With embarrassing pretension, I delivered this line in my resignation letter: "Trivia has its place, obviously, but are we clear on what place that is?"

It was demoralising to admit I wasn’t on top of the job.

My struggle may not have been obvious to other people, but it was real for me.

I can still remember once spending a ridiculous amount of time supposedly searching for some paperwork under my desk when I was really having a good bawl under there.

The legendary messiness of my work area meant no-one thought anything was amiss.

I wonder if Joe is ever tempted to dive under the wonderfully named Resolute desk in the Oval Office. (The Kennedy kids used to hide in its leg space section.)

Recognising you are not indispensable is always wise, something Joe does not appreciate. Suggesting it would take the Lord Almighty to come down to convince him he needs to step aside sounds a tad unhinged.

But enough of that. My campaign is not to keep a job, but against the increasing use of death euphemisms — particularly "passed" and "passed away".

My two avid readers will remember me writing about this after the Queen died, but if anything it has got worse since then. Hardly a day goes by without a radio journalist referring to someone’s passing or having passed away rather than saying they died.

This sugar-coating of what is an inevitable state for all of us, including Joe Biden, baffles me.

Recently, I noticed the Health and Disability Commissioner’s office was using the term "passed away" in reports. I thought this was a new thing but when I did a search of the commissioner’s website, I discovered report writers have been doing it for years.

The response to my questions about this was that both passed away and died meant the same thing and it was the decision-maker’s call on choice of language to describe death.

But hang on, would those same HDC decision-makers ever find it acceptable to use other euphemisms/slang even if they might be readily recognised as synonyms for conditions or body parts?

We would shudder if pregnancy were referred to as someone having a bun in the oven, someone was bleeding like a stuck pig (instead of haemorrhaging), had the trots rather than diarrhoea, or if terms like old fella and lady parts were used to describe genitalia.

Why is a death euphemism any different?

Police media reports also often refer to people having passed away.

When I queried that I was told generally staff worked to "use plain, clear language that will get the message across most effectively".

Typically, they would state a person had died, although some media advisers might also use passed away or deceased. Sometimes phrasing was altered at the request of operational staff.

With organisations like these joining the fray to avoid the "d" words, it seems the likelihood of my campaign succeeding before I find myself wearing a wooden onesie is slim.

I cannot decide whether to do a Joe and hang in there anyway or find a pastime which is more death defying than death defining.

 - Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.