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March 17, 2010

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All good points, well made. But the example "Mr. Smith died yesterday after a long battle with cancer" also embodies one of my least favorite media clichés. Jennings is right that this awkward, oh-so-delicate construction "says more about the writer or speaker than it does about the deceased." It makes me wonder why news reporters seem to find it offensive to say that someone died of cancer or was killed by cancer or even the now-rare "succumbed to cancer." Instead they have to say "died after a long battle with cancer." This kind of construction distances the death from its cause. As a matter of fact, it leaves open the possibility that the person had a long battle with cancer, won it, and feeling quite chipper, walked out of his house one morning and got run over by a garbage truck.

People also die from a "massive heart attack" or a "massive stroke". A small heart attack or stroke can be fatal, and in most cases no one knows the details for a while anyway. But if the person died, it must have been "massive". It's coming to be a synonym for "fatal".

Back when I was a newspaper copy editor, we always used "a long illness" as a euphemism for cancer. "Died suddenly" meant heart attack.

As a reader I prefer " a long illness" with my morning coffee and the gory details later on in the day, but not just before bed.

One could die suddenly also in a car accident.

I think this is a celebration of autonomy: fighting suggests safeguarding (trying to ) one's autonomy, I think. The idea of succumbing does not fit in with our mental image of human autonomy. Or that is at least what I now think.

My wife died of cancer nearly three years ago. Her pet obituary peeve was the line about how the decedant "never complained." She would get furious about that--as if in the end you get extra points for not complaining. Why shouldn't someone dying of cancer complain? Seems pretty understandable.

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