that J passed away in the night," the voice at the other end of the phone told me. "Like"? No. Need to know? Yes. We once had a close association with J and still have a close association with her children so it was important that we know but "like" to know? No. She was "only 64" and that is scarcely "old" by modern standards. She will not be there for the birth of another grandchild, due in a few weeks.
We say things in odd ways. Most people I know use "passed away" instead of "died". There are plenty of other euphemisms or "avoidance" phrases in all languages. It is as if, by couching some ideas in vague terms, they will do less harm or be less painful - or perhaps just be less embarrassing. They may help to make an awkward situation less awkward.
One of our neighbours came over the other day. He was checking on his own next door neighbour who had been taken off in an ambulance. Did we know anything? I took the opportunity to ask about the mother of their "adopted" Mongolian student. I knew she was very ill. The student had gone home to see her.
"Dead," he said bluntly. It was less startling than it might have been because that is his way. He does not avoid things. He confronts them.
He came over again a couple of days ago. This time he brought his brother with him having just been to another state to get him. They are searching for accommodation for him. His brother has lung cancer. He is a very sick man. It is immediately obvious there is something wrong, even before he speaks - something he can only do in a whisper. Our neighbour is blunt about this too.
There was no avoidance of any issue. His brother was the same. He was here for treatment which "might give me a few more months". It was said without embarrassment or any sort of self-pity. It made meeting his brother much easier. I have seen him since and chatted quite easily to him. I am not sure I would feel so relaxed if his dire state of health had been couched in euphemistic terms.
I wonder if we do ourselves and others any real favours when we use euphemisms? Does the veneer of social politeness and apparent regard for the feelings of others in such situations just make it harder for them as well as us?