How to Improve Your English - 10 Idioms About Death

This article will help you if you are learning English as a second language, and, I hope, it will entertain you if English is your home language.

As death is inevitable, so is the proliferation of the means to express death.

Some of these English idioms are respectful and more formal, whilst others are less formal, or even humorous or unsympathetic.

There are many more expressions you can use when talking about death, but I have picked out just a few, to get you started on the path to mortality.

The Death of Socrates (Being Given Poison Hemlock to Drink)


1. To Die -

This is the straightforward no-frills way of stating the event. You can say "he died last week", "he will die soon", or even "he wishes he could die".

When giving condolences to someone who has just died, you might say "I'm sorry to hear about your husband's death".

However, you need to be aware that some people are uncomfortable with speaking about someone's death - they seem to feel uneasy about being so direct, and don't like the word "death" mentioned in that context. It is therefore common to use a circumlocution, avoiding the words die and death altogether, and they would prefer to hear phrase No. 2 below.

But if you are talking about historical facts, it is in order to speak about death directly, and you might say "many people died in the hurricane".

You could also warn people about doing something dangerous, such as "if you play with guns, someone might die".

I'm not sure why there is a distinction between the way you talk about deaths in general and the way you would refer to someone personally known to you, but there just is a difference .

2. To Pass Away -

This is a respectful euphemism to avoid mentioning death or dying, as in "my aunt passed away last week".

You might also say of someone in hospital "he is expected to pass away soon". But you would NOT say "if you jump off the roof you might pass away".

It is very common when speaking of a loved one or giving condolences to write or say "I'm so sorry to hear that your husband passed away" - in fact this is the usual way of expressing it.

3. To Pass Over (or To Pass Over to the Other Side) -

People might say "he passed over after a long illness".

I personally would not use this respectful expression, because it infers that you have knowledge or belief of the hereafter, and is slightly mystical. I would expect to hear this phrase spoken by deeply religious people, possibly of all denominations which believe in life after death, where dying is merely crossing the border between now and whatever comes next.

As with No. 2 above, you would not normally use this expression when stating historical facts or talking about the future.

Ophelia by John Everett Milais

4. To Snuff it -

As in "Where's her old man?"..."He snuffed it last year".

This is irreverent slang or humor, used generally in the past tense - you don't really hear of people currently snuffing it, or doing so in the future, so you would not say "he's snuffing it" in the way that you might say "he's dying" or "he will die".

This expression is a bit disrespectful, and you should not use it when talking to a bereaved person, although you might use it when talking to someone who is not emotionally involved.

If there is any doubt, don't use it.

5. To Kick the Bucket -

As in "He kicked the bucket a year ago".

Again, similarly to No. 4 above, this is a slightly disrespectful or humorous way of talking about dying and you should be careful where you use this slang phrase.

Picking Daisies

Daisies in my Garden
Daisies in my Garden | Source

6. Picking Daisies -

Similar to No. 4 and 5 above, but slightly gentler.

So if you say "He's picking daisies", it's perhaps a little humorous, but not disrespectful - more neutral, really.

7. Six Feet Under -

As in "He's six feet under". This refers to the standard depth for burying a corpse in a churchyard.

This expression is very informal, and is used humorously. You wouldn't use it when offering condolences or speaking of historical facts in a general way.

The Death of Two English Princes - Princes in the Tower - Richard Northcote

8. To Give up the Ghost -

As in "He gave up the ghost last year". A reference to his spirit leaving his body.

This expression is informal, but not necessarily humorous.

9. To Breathe One's Last Breath -

As in "He breathed his last breath last night". Fairly formal, virtually factual.

10. To Go to Meet One's Maker -

As in "He has gone to meet his Maker". Fairly formal, and more likely to be used by someone religious.

A Much-Visited Video about the Idiomatic Use of the Word "All"

Another Video - Speaking English at Work

So That's It - To Sum up, Here's the List Again of the Various Ways You Can Describe Death or Dying:

  1. To Die
  2. To Pass Over
  3. To Pass Away
  4. To Snuff it
  5. To Kick the Bucket
  6. Picking Daisies
  7. Six Feet Under
  8. To Give up the Ghost
  9. To Breathe his Last Breathe
  10. To Go to Meet Her Maker

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© 2013 Diana Grant

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Let me know whether this list helped you, or whether you enjoyed it (although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive) 5 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

I love it. I love any article that is fresh and new and helpful. Well done!

Diana Grant profile image

Diana Grant 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Billybuc - you've made my day - or should I say "love you to death"?

Arachnea profile image

Arachnea 2 years ago from Texas USA

When I saw this, the Goth in my had to pop in. Now, I've not heard picking daisies, but I have heard pushing up daisies. I took this to be rather tongue-in-cheek. Very amusing list. One I didn't see above, "... to bite the big one."

Diana Grant profile image

Diana Grant 2 years ago from London Author

I think "Bite the big one" must be an American expression?

Cheryl Green profile image

Cheryl Green 24 months ago

wow thank you for this article.this is very helpful

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