Sugaring the strawberries and other uncomfortable truths

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Euphemisms naturally extend to one of the trickiest topics of all … death. In English we talk of kicking the bucket, popping our clogs, pushing up the daisies, biting the dust or turning up our toes. And these are just some of the more common terms. Across the English speaking world, Australians have met their Waterloo and Americans have climbed the golden staircase. Londoners however go west (Cockney Dialect), go trumpet-cleaning (the trumpeter being the angel Gabriel) or simply faint away in this vale of tears (a Victorian expression from the Brompton Cemetery).

However, this final act of the body is often something that people prefer not to confront directly with an expression. Such is the power of taboo and superstition, that during the Chinese New Year death and dying are never mentioned and ghost stories are completely taboo. Any death by accident or foul play is to be feared, as the ghost may seek revenge on the seventh night.

Amazon Indians don’t accept that death can ever be natural or even accidental. If there is no obvious cause, such as a wound, they explain a death as a result of a spell. In a sense all their people die violently, if one will admit that evil spells are violent. Sickness and death through disease are thought to be the result of someone’s bad wishes, and all such acts of aggression must be avenged if possible and the culprit identified and his malevolence punished.

Peruvians traditionally believed that if you drop oil somebody was going to die or that if somebody died near your house then there would be another death in the neighbourhood, while in Lebanon one shouldn’t plant a pine tree in front of their house, because when it reaches the height of the roof someone from the family will die.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world people are happy to be quite graphic with their metaphors so that it’s not open to interpretation. The theme of no longer being shod and upright on your feet is naturally popular. The Russians play the snake, throw their hooves outwards, glue up their slippers or throw out their best skates. In Portugal they hit the boot or stretch the leg (bater a bota/esticar a perna) and in the Hausa language of Nigeria ya kwanta dama which translates as he is lying on his right arm. This is because Muslims are buried not lying on their backs but on the right arm facing the Kaabah.

In Scandinavia, shoes were bound to the feet of a corpse to ease the long tramp to the next world. America’s Zuni Indians bury bread so that the dead warrior will not go hungry and come back looking for food. When it comes to the hanging up of boots, these really are sometimes for the final time: in Mexico they say colgar los tenis, meaning to hang up or hand in your tennis shoes, the Czechs zaklepat bačkorama, to bang together a pair of slippers and the Turks nalları havaya dikmek, to raise horse shoes to the sky.


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