Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In defense of sudden death

At You Don't Say, John McIntyre notes the death of the Queen's English Society, "suddenly, in Britain, of attenuated interest." Commenter James Callahan objects to his language: "When I was a cubbie, I was chewed on pretty good by an editor for using the word 'suddenly' with 'died' in an obituary. I've been waiting 38 years to return the favor."

I've always thought it was a dumb idea, this ban on "died suddenly," and looking back at the archives, I see that I said so in a short item four years ago. I could say more, but I don't think I need to.

SUDDEN SILLINESS (From the Boston Globe, Feb. 2, 2008):
I was talking with a former journalist about Stupid Newsroom Rules the other day, and he reminded me of one I hadn't heard in years: the ban on "he died suddenly."

In their 1999 book "The Trust," Susan Tifft and Alex Jones recount how Arthur O. Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times, learned from an editor at the Milwaukee Journal that suddenly was (supposedly) redundant: "'Everyone dies suddenly,' he said. 'One minute you're here, the next you're dead.' Years later ... Punch said the main lesson he took away was that 'in Milwaukee, you died unexpectedly."'

But this "rule" is totally bogus. Suddenly has always meant both "without preparation, all at once" and "unexpectedly," according to the OED. Trying to limit its sense to "instantaneously" is sheer crankiness.

Suddenly might have once been problematic, back when it was a journalistic euphemism. In the old days, "No one ever committed suicide," observes John McIntyre on his Baltimore Sun blog, but "people sometimes 'died suddenly."'

That usage, however, is no longer current, judging by the paid death notices in newspapers. Journalists may ration their references to dying "suddenly," but bereaved families use it routinely -- surely not as a euphemism for suicide.

Sometimes, it's true, the adverb is superfluous. In a report of death from an accidental overdose, a car crash, or a bomb, suddenly should go without saying.

Otherwise, it's perfectly appropriate to say someone "died suddenly." The adverb was never meant to imply scientific precision; it has always been about perception, not biology.


Nancy said...

When I worked on a newspaper copy desk, I was taught that "died suddenly" was the accepted euphemism for "had a heart attack" and "died after a long illness" meant "cancer," which was a taboo word except in science stories.

Gregory Lee said...

it has always been about perception, not biology

I agree. As a first cut at a characterization: "suddenly" means that only a short time elapsed between the time it was realized that an event would occur and the time it actually occurred.

Ø said...

I have been haunted for years by the memory of a sign reading "Sudden Service". It was in the window of, I think, a dry cleaner's. The misguided notion seems to be that "sudden" is sufficiently synonymous with "fast" to allow the alliteration.

John Burgess said...

Many years ago, I was writing retail sales copy. For a Sunday magazine insert for a big TV, I made reference to the new rule for the National Football League that instituted 'Sudden Death' as a means of breaking tie games.

For weeks afterwards, I received calls from aggrieved readers, chastising me for my callousness, my unfeeling for those who had had family members 'suddenly die.'

None chided me for ungrammatical use.

Bryan White said...

I totally agree. This definitely one of those cases where people get too technical in their nitpicking. When someone "dies suddenly" we all know that means unexpectedly, just like you said.

Marc Leavitt said...

When I was on the desk I always changed "died suddenly" to "died." The adverb seemed unnecessary.

The Ridger, FCD said...

The adverb means something. It means the death was unexpected. "He died suddenly" means no one looks up from the obit and says "I didn't know he was ill." If you don't like "died suddenly" you should replace the adverb, not cut it.

Bryan White said...

Gregory raises a good point about the time elapsed between a realization and an event. There is an element of perception to it. Without that, you could say that nearly everything happens suddenly, or at the very least "suddenly" would become synonymous with "quickly."

Bryan White said...

@Mark: For example, suppose you were telling a story about an argument you got into at a spotlight and you said that the other driver "got out of his car suddenly", well what would that mean? Surely there wasn't anything unusual about the actual physical act of getting out of the car or the time it took. By "suddenly" you mean that it took you by surprise, and that's almost ALWAYS what suddenly means.

And yet, by saying that "died suddenly" is redundant, you're disregarding that fact. By that criteria when wouldn't "suddenly" be redundant?

Ø said...

Faulkner could have used a good editor. Since dying takes no time, it's clear that As I Lay Dying should have been called As I Lay Approaching Death.

Gregory Lee said...

There is a systematic (though not always present) shift in the sense of manner time adverbs when the adverb is moved from final to preverbal position. In final position, reference is to the time occupied by an event, but in preverbal position, reference is to the time preceding an event. The adverb quickly, which Bryan just mentioned, has this shift. If you say He awoke quickly, you mean the amount of time occupied by the waking up process was short. But if you say He quickly awoke, you mean that the interval of time before he woke up was short.

Whether you get this shift in sense seems to differ from adverb to adverb. When I substitute slowly in the above sentences, I don't find the shift, personally. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to find that it differs by dialect.

Now, if suddenly means, roughly, surprisingly quickly, we might find a corresponding difference in interpretation between He died suddenly meaning that it was surprising how little time the death process took, from the time he started to die until he was completely dead, on the one hand, and Suddenly, he died, meaning that the time was surprisingly short from when we knew he would die until he actually did die.

Ed Cormany said...

"sudden death" is definitely a term of art in sports, as John pointed out. the meaning there is "immediate" rather than "unexpected". until some recent tweaks to the NFL rule, a single field goal could win a game, and frequently the winning team would set itself up for a kick they had a 90% or greater chance of making — hardly unexpected.

some sports have in fact shied away from using the word "death" — think of the children! in single-elimination soccer tournaments, there used to be "golden goal" extra time, where the first goal ends the game immediately, but this was to contrast with "silver goal" extra time where the game would end after 15 minutes of extra time if one team was ahead, but play 30 minutes if still tied. (neither is used anymore, as it happens.)

the latest absurd euphemism now is "sudden victory", which i've seen used in NCAA lacrosse. i think it's only a few years old, but i may be suffering from the Recency Illusion. if there's any bleed between the two meanings of "sudden" here, it makes this phrase sound even sillier, as if neither team is expected to win.

and lastly, back to literal death…the notion that the act of dying is always binary and immediate just seems totally false, given how most people conceive of death and dying. i think more people would be offended if they were told that their relatives who died after battles with cancer ending in long-term hospitalization died "suddenly".

Ø said...

it makes this phrase sound even sillier, as if neither team is expected to win

I don't see that. A team which was not expected to necessarily win might suddenly win. That would be a sudden victory for that team.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I agree that overuse is the only possible problem with describing someone as having "died suddenly".

Allan Lloyd said...

Guy got lost in a forest a few miles from Seattle during a typical three-week rain event. Starved to death. Died soddenly.

Unknown said...

What a thought provoking piece. I especially loved that use of "suddenly" as an euphemism for suicide. What a gentle world that must have been.
Personally, I don't find the ban on "suddenly" in obituaries disagreeable, because I was taught as a second grade student by my English teacher that to use "suddenly" in ANY context was bad writing, as it smacked of lazy story telling.