LINGUIST List 14.2384

Tue Sep 9 2003

Sum: Modified Re: 14-2289: Words for "death"

Editor for this issue: Michael Appleby <>


  1. D. Alan Shewmon, Modified Re: 14-2289: Words for "death"

Message 1: Modified Re: 14-2289: Words for "death"

Date: Sun, 31 Aug 2003 13:45:19 +0000
From: D. Alan Shewmon <>
Subject: Modified Re: 14-2289: Words for "death"

[Editor's note: A subscriber kindly pointed out that the Polish
examples in the original posting (issue 14-2289) had some missing
characters. Thus, the Polish part is reposted here, with Western
European characters in place of the Eastern European ones]

For a medical paper on brain death we were wondering whether there are
languages with

(1) more than one word for the phenomenon we call 'death'
(2) no equivalent for the English word 'death'

Re: (1), we were not thinking of joking, euphemistic or substandard
substitutes for the 'serious' word for death.

We received many replies and will quote from those most related to
what we were seeking. Many thanks to everybody who replied - the
information was very helpful and is much appreciated.

D. Alan Shewmon, MD
Department of Neurology
David Geffen School of Medicine
University of California, Los Angeles


smierc (of Slavonic origin) - the most frequently used, neutral
equivalent of English death. Used in a variety of contexts and in
everyday language. It is also used in legal and medical language,
e.g. smierc m�zgu (death of the brain), smierc kliniczna (clinical

zgon - means death and it is more formal than smierc since it is the
medical term for death. Zgon means in fact death of a person because
you may not say zgon m�zgu (zgon/death of the brain) but only smierc
m�zgu (smierc/death of the brain). Afterwards a doctor may declare zgon
(death) of a patient. This term is also used in legal contexts and in
the press/mass media.

As regards the press/TV, I think that zgon is used instead of smierc
in contexts where you want to sound formal, professional, distanced,
serious, objective, etc. In most cases, zgon and smierc could be used
interchangeably. There are certain frozen phrases, e.g. Akt zgonu -
certificate of death (only zgon is used here), stwierdzic zgon - to
declare that somebody is dead (literal: to declare death).

There are also two separate words for to die 
umrzec - which is used only in reference to human beings 
zdechnac - which is used in reference to animals; or as a derogatory
term in reference to human beings

[respondent: Lucja Biel, University of Gdask, Poland,]
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