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How to Improve Your English - 10 Idioms About Death

Updated on March 30, 2017
Diana Grant profile image

I'm fascinated by words, nuances of meanings & ideas. I have always enjoyed reading, language, and writing, from poetry to very long letters

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

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.

Here is a List of the Various Ways You Can Describe Death or Dying

I will explain in detail lower down the page how each expression is used, and whether it is appropriate in the circumstances

  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 His/Her Maker

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

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© 2013 Diana Grant

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

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    • Diana Grant profile image

      Diana Grant 10 months ago from London

      Thanks - it never ceases to amaze me how many different ways there are in English to say the same thing. I'm still learning and I'm in my fourth quartile of a century!

    • Diana Grant profile image

      Diana Grant 10 months ago from London

      Thanks - I enjoyed writing it - I love talking about the meanings of words and phrases - I have all sorts of English dictionaries and thesauruses, including numerous different language dictionaries and phrasebooks

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 10 months ago from Templeton, CA

      I was already familiar with these, but I still found it interesting. I think it would be helpful to those who are learning English. I liked your examples of when each idiom is or is not appropriate.

    • Cheryl Green profile image

      Cheryl Green 2 years ago

      wow thank you for this article.this is very helpful

    • Diana Grant profile image

      Diana Grant 3 years ago from London

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

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 3 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 4 years ago from London

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

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

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