Friday, August 30, 2013


from the Spokane College of English Language
Several adages begin with the word "Never":

Never change horses in midstream. This old chestnut was invoked by President George W. Bush to caution the public against voting for John Kerry in the 2004 election. One assumes that the metaphorical stream, in this case, was war -- the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq -- two streams, actually.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth. What this means, I suppose, is that if someone gives you a horse, you ought not to behave rudely by pointing out that the hapless nag is afflicted with a gum disease.

Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. You should not postpone calling the vet to have your gift horse's teeth fixed.

Never trouble trouble til it troubles you. If you see a bunch of bullies beating up on someone, you should do nothing unless the bullies decide to come after you. 

Never forego an opportunity to empty your bladder. My mother told me this one. What is means is use the restroom before you get back in the car.

Never say die.  This one puzzles me. What actually happens if you say "die" for instance, instead of saying so-and-so passed away or so-and-so is no longer with us? Does avoiding the word "die" -- I suppose I should say "died" -- make the deceased seem less dead than if you use a fuzzier term?

 For some reason euphemisms regarding death have always annoyed me. "Passed away" makes me imagine the deceased  mounting the celestial stairway while clutching a pass card  like the ones issued to students who insist on using the bathroom during class time. 

"No longer with us" is just plain too ambiguous and "gone to a better place" presupposes the person you're addressing believes in heaven which, if they are a Buddhist, Hindu or atheist, they probably don't. 

There is one euphemism for death I actually like though. In Botswana (if one is to believe the author, Alexander McCall Smith) one will say of a dead person that he is late -- not late as in late for dinner, late as in the late Miss Scarlet or the late Mr. Plum. Why I find this turn of phrase charming and the others annoying I couldn't tell you. Probably it has to do with my enjoyment of the characters in McCall Smith's books, at least the ones  set in Botswana.

Come to think of it, though, I have no serious objections to "kicked the bucket" or "bought the farm" but these terms have (according to the laws of decency) a restricted use. 

I'm aware, by the way, that "never say die" probably means never give up. Again, whether or not this is good advice depends entirely on the context.

In conclusion, I think "never"is a word to be used with extreme caution. It is, after all, a word that slams doors, then locks and bolts them. It shuts you in as completely and as finally as it shuts other people out.

However, if you need to say "never" in order to bolster your resolve, feel free. I use it all the time when I say, for instance, that I will never eat half of an entire package of double-stuf Oreos again.