October seems a good time to look at phrases and idioms about macabre subjects such as death and, well, the not quite dead.
Many people find the subject of death so disturbing, even terrifying, that they need to find some less troublesome synonym, whether it makes any sense or not. If the phrase is somehow humorous, so much the better.
And what if, after the burial of the corpse, its spirit (or to use the earlier English word ghost) hangs around to haunt a place? That’s even scarier. Ghosts have long enjoyed a prominent place in popular culture, but lately zombies seem even more popular. I haven’t found a lot of idioms about zombies and vampires, but ‘tis the season to examine word origins.
People who face certain death—or people such as executioners and mortuary workers who deal with death on a daily basis—often respond to it with sardonic humor. The term “gallows humor” first entered the English language early in the 20th century. Examples, of course, are much earlier.
In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Tybalt stabs Mercutio. Romeo tries to assure Mercutio that the wound is not serious, but Mercutio knows it is fatal. He says, “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man”
One James French, serving a life sentence for murder, grew tired of living but was reputedly afraid to commit suicide. His solution? He murdered his cell mate and so he could be sentenced to death. As he was strapped into the electric chair, he quipped, “How’s this for a headline? French fries.”
Bite the dust
We have a number of crude idioms that mean to die. “Bite the dust” provides the image of someone falling down dead, usually in a violent death, and his open mouth landing in the dirt. Probably some variant of it has been used in numerous civilizations. For example, Psalm 72:9 (KJV) says, “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.”
Samuel Butler used our phrase in his early 19th-century translation of Homer’s Illiad: “Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying around him.” I do not know how literal that translation is.
Therefore, Tobias Smollett appears to be the first to use it, in his 1750 novel Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane: “We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to fight.”
“Croak,” as the hoarse sound of a frog or raven, came into the English language in the 15th century. It’s just one of many words that imitate animal sounds. What does it have to do with death?
We have a more technical term, death rattle, to describe the sound a dying person makes when mucus accumulates in the upper airway and the person can neither swallow it nor cough it up. Sometime in the 19th century, “croak” became a slang equivalent of “die” because of this sound, which someone must have thought sounded like a frog.
Kick the bucket
The previous two entries make sense, once you think about them. “Kick the bucket” makes no sense at all. It appears in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) with the definition, “to die,” but without explanation of where it came from. No one has found a plausible story of its origin, yet everyone knows what it means.
According to one theory, someone committed suicide by standing on a bucket with a noose around his neck and then kicking the bucket away. No account exists of anyone actually using that method or writing a description of someone who did.
Another theory proposes a 16th-century origin. Butchers used a wooden frame to hang animals by their feet for slaughter. One source says that, in Norfolk, it is called a bucket. But why would a local technical term suddenly, after 200 years, become popular slang nationally? No written evidence exists for Norfolk butchers describing the animals kicking the bucket.
Of course, some animals do kick buckets, specifically, cows being milked. But they do not die in the process, regardless of how miffed generations of milkmaids may have been.
Give up the ghost
A few hundred years ago, whatever else “ghost” meant, it was interchangeable with “spirit.” For example, the Christian concept of Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the 17th century and before, it appears as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And Mark 15:37 in the King James says, “And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost.” That is, he died. Other verses also use “gave up the ghost.”
The phrase might have been a common euphemism for dying long before any English translations of the Bible existed. Nowadays, some people might say that their car or something inanimate gave up the ghost.
Not a ghost of a chance
A ghost has no material substance. It supposedly appears as some kind of shadow. And so something that doesn’t have ghost of a chance means essentially no chance at all. Not even an unsubstantial semblance of a chance. The term first appeared in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857).
A ghost town is a town where either literally no one lives anymore or the population has declined drastically fro its peak.
Humans have had occasion to abandon settlements from prehistoric times for several reasons. In recent times, changes in the local economy account for many of them. If a mine employs lots of people and then gives out, for example, the people leave. Prolonged drought or persistent flooding can make agriculture impossible, and again, people leave. Some towns have had to be abandoned for the creation of a dam and artificial lake.
A volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat destroyed the town of Plymouth in 1995. Although it is now uninhabitable, it remains the island’s legal capital. Manmade disasters have likewise made towns uninhabitable. Chernobyl (1986) is perhaps the most notorious example.
Various terms exist to describe extinct towns. If no trace appears above ground, it is considered a barren site. Perhaps a few roofless buildings remain–a neglected site. But in an abandoned site, buildings remain intact but no one lives there or occupies them. A semi-abandoned site has a small population remaining among many abandoned buildings.
Abandoned sites have been called ghost towns since the 1890s. Many have become favorite tourist attractions.
Now, when a person dies, the “ghost” exits the body and leaves behind a corpse. When living humans abandon a town, it might make more sense to speak of a corpse town, but when did English idioms ever make sense?
Many a memoir or autobiography has a famous person’s name on the cover, but the famous person didn’t write it. Christy Walsh, the first sports agent, coined the term “ghostwriter” in 1921 to describe the actual authors of books and articles attributed to baseball players. As he expressed his rationale for hiring them, “Don’t insult the intelligence of the public by claiming these men write their own stuff.”
Sometimes ghostwriters get credit for their work, but not always. Sometimes the supposed authors and their acknowledged ghostwriters have a public falling out. For example, Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal became a best seller in 1987, but it was actually written by Tony Schwartz, who got credit on the title page as co-author. When Trump announced his candidacy for President, Schwartz publicly opposed him.
Much of the time, however, ghostwriters labor in anonymity and don’t expect credit. When they’re writing someone’s memoir, it can be an honorable profession. Unfortunately, many people make good money writing term papers that students can turn in as their own work.
Skeleton in the closet
Someone who has gained a degree with ghostwritten papers or even a ghostwritten dissertation faces professional ruin if the cheating ever becomes known. We might say that such people have skeletons in their closets.
People have all kinds of secrets that they want to keep hidden. What adulterer wants his or her spouse to know about the cheating? Someone with a criminal record would certainly prefer that prospective employers not know about it.
Probably everyone is ashamed of something in their past—or even a present habit––and don’t want others to know about it. It doesn’t have to be something that would cause ruin if anyone finds out. Doesn’t everyone prefer to avoid any kind of embarrassment?
The phrase itself seems to have originated in the early 19th century. William Hendry Stowell used it in an article he published in The Eclectic Review in 1816 to describe the shame of a hereditary disease. William Makepeace Thackery used the phrase in at least two of his writings. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, a man rapped heavily on a brick wall. It collapsed, revealing the skeleton of the wife he had murdered standing in the closet behind it.
For hundreds of years, Slavic folklore included undead creatures called vampir that inflicted harm on the living. In this folklore, the creatures had no physical body, but they spread diseases and otherwise wreaked havoc. Slavic people lived in isolation from western Europe and their culture was essentially unknown.
The Holy Roman Empire gained control of Slavic territories in 1686, and its soldiers interacted with Slavic peasants and learned their folklore. It captured the imagination of people in Vienna and other cultural centers in the empire and soon spread throughout Europe. “Vampire” is first attested in English in 1732.
In the process, the idea took on new features. Vampires acquired bodies and began to drink human blood. Vampires were not quite living beings, but the diet of blood gave them a semblance of life. The bite of a vampire turned the victims into vampires themselves. Today’s notion of vampires derives from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Doesn’t the undead vampire remind you of zombies?
In Haiti, where slavery was especially brutal, African slaves developed the religion of vodou. A vodou sorcerer, called a bokor, had the power to administer a potion to a victim that would him or her seem to die. Within eight hours of burial, the bokor would dig up the body and, after various rituals to separate soul from body, administer another potion that would return the body to life, but without memory, personality, or ability to speak. The resulting zombie would become the bokor’s slave.
When the idea of zombies first entered American popular culture, the connection with slavery and African descent continued, but a horror movie called White Zombie appeared in 1932. There, a Hattian plantation owner prepares a zombie potion to seduce a visiting white bride. After the idea of a white zombie entered popular culture, the association with Haiti no longer seemed necessary.
Zombies continued to appear as soulless beings who would follow orders without ever getting tired, but George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced the concept of undead beings as reanimated corpses who attack and eat people. It just didn’t call them zombies yet. The second film in the series, Dawn of the Dead (1978) does call the rampaging undead zombies.
After Romero, the whole idea of the undead thereby took on new life. I have spent a fruitless hour trying to determine the first use of the term “zombie apocalypse.” It can’t be any earlier than 1968 and probably not earlier than 1978. It refers to a genre that depicts the collapse of society because of overwhelming swarms of zombies. The zombies attack living humans so effectively that only a few isolated bands of humans survive.
Watch out for zombies appearing on your doorstep demanding candy.