Wednesday, 31 October 2012

You’re dead right (and other deathly vocabulary)

Today is the Mexican Day of The Dead where people in Mexico and some other cultures remember those family and friends who have died.
I think it’s a lovely thing to do and very different to the way we deal with death in Britain.  Over here dying is on the long list of perfectly natural things which we find impossible to talk about – instead we try to change the subject as quickly as possible with a mixture of distaste and embarrassment. I’ve never taught a lesson on death, doubtless for this reason, and thus the subject joins the long list of things which teachers seldom teach thus leaving serious gaps in students’ vocabulary.

So here are some of the most important words.  Use a dictionary if you don’t know what they mean and put them in the text below. Answers are on the worksheet (see bottom of page).

In the United Kingdom there are two options when you die:  you can have a ____________, where your body is put in a wooden____________ and put in the ground (six feet deep) in a _____________. Or you can have a ____________, where the body is burnt. Afterwards the family can take the ____________  and either keep them in an urn (see pic) or scatter them in a special place, for example, at sea, or in a garden.

The body is carried to the ____________ in a special vehicle called a ____________. In the past this was a horse-drawn carriage but nowadays it’s a long black car. The people who drive the car and organise the ceremony are called ____________ (they take you under!) The ____________ (the friends and family who attend) wear black.
In Ireland it’s common for the dead body to be kept at home for a few days, this is called a ____________ and people come and pay their respects (and sometimes have a little drink). See Irish comedian Dave Allen’s description!

“Dead right” etc.
There are a number of phrases in English which use “dead” as an intensifier, where it means “extremely/absolutely” (see the worksheet for exercises for these).
dead right/wrong
dead tired
dead hungry
dead ahead
dead sure
dead drunk
dead against
dead centre

Other common phrases include:
A dead end – when you drive down a dead end street there is no exit. A dead heat – when two people in a race finish at exactly the same moment. A deadline – the time by which you must have finished something. Deadpan (adj.) – when someone says something funny but doesn’t smile.
The number of euphemisms for “die” reflect our uncomfortable relationship with death. The most polite and sensitive way to say someone has died is to say that they “passed away”.  There are however many more completely unsuitable slang phrases including:
to snuff it
to kick the bucket
to meet your maker
to peg it

 Personally, most of them sound horribly brutal to me as well as rather desperate, as if trying too hard to appear indifferent. I wouldn’t recommend using any of them!

Expressing sympathy
Perhaps most importantly is what to say when you hear that someone has lost a family member or friend.
I’m so sorry”   or  “I’m very sorry to hear that” would be appropriate when speaking.
“Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss is the rather formal phrase used in writing.
"I'm so sorry to hear about *****" would be less formal (i.e. to a close friend).

 On this worksheet you can find exercises for all of the vocabulary as well as a transcript of the Dave Allen monologue.


  1. Nice Lesson with lots of vocabulary. Thanks Martin.

    1. Hi Dave, you're very welcome. Glad you found it useful.