Noted in Passing – An Irishman’s Diary about dead language

“A period of nine months was  allowed to elapse – apparently standard over there, as if to mirror the gestation process that precedes life’s other extreme – before they held a public memorial service”

“A period of nine months was allowed to elapse – apparently standard over there, as if to mirror the gestation process that precedes life’s other extreme – before they held a public memorial service”

 

Browsing Twitter a while ago, I read an announcement from an English magazine editor about a colleague who had “sadly died”. I was, as we say in these parts, sorry for her troubles.  

And I know grammar and syntax are of secondary importance on these occasions.

Even so, the position of the adverb was unfortunate.

Yes the intended meaning was obvious: that it was the writer who felt sad. But the sentence implied it was the deceased who had been upset about the event, with the added implication that, in different circumstances, he might have died happily.

A more notorious example of this crime against English is the use of the word “hopefully” to mean “I hope”: as in “hopefully it won’t rain today”. It’s everywhere now, despite which I’m glad to see the language police still holding the line against it, although there are signs of weakening.  

The imperious Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation acknowledges that the new meaning may be unstoppable, adding only that “many careful writers still deplore [it]”.  

As for Fowler’s Dictionary, it notes in passing that this use of hopefully was “decriminalised” in 2012 by the Associated Press stylebook. But it still goes on to devote a page-and-a-half to the controversy, saying: “It is hard to think of another word which has provoked such revulsion and condemnation”.

Leaving grammar aside, however, while getting back to the subject of people dying, sadly or otherwise, that tweet also set me thinking about the wider etiquette of death in England, which in all other respects is very proper, in the old-fashioned sense of that word.  

In fact, of the many cultural differences between this island and the southern part of the neighbouring one, the contrasting attitude to funerals must be among the most stark.

It first struck me last year when Terry Wogan, formerly of this parish, died. During his decades in Britain, he had to some extent gone native. That was reflected in his funeral: a quiet, private affair, in the English style.  

Then a period of nine months was allowed to elapse – again apparently standard over there, as if to mirror the gestation process that precedes life’s other extreme – before they held a public memorial service, with all the trimmings (but not the actual deceased), in Westminster Abbey.

As Mary Kenny, who was there, explained in the Irish Independent, the English memorial service is a full-dress occasion. For the quality of women’s hats alone, she said, it was comparable “to a day at the races”. But the celebratory aspect was possible only because of the lapse of so much time after bereavement.  

The Irish funeral, by contrast, is almost always public and within three days of death (in England, even the burial can be delayed for weeks). It is often celebratory, nevertheless. And it’s much less formal, so that a returning exile like Kenny can be shocked to see people attending in “old jeans, cheap anoraks, [and] T-shirts”.

She seems to have become a connoisseur of such cultural differences. More recently, in her column for the Oldie magazine, she reprised the subject, explaining to her (mostly-British) readership the importance of the “open coffin” in Irish funerals, and our habit of calling what’s in it “the remains”.  

This was a “chillingly accurate” description, she thought, although it never occurred to me until then that there was anything unusual about it.

I nearly wrote there that Kenny was a “keen observer” of the subject, which as well as being a cliché would have been an accidental joke. The verb “to keen” still has its own funerary meaning here, of course. If the modern Irish wake seems strange to the English, they would have been appalled by the traditional one, with its whiskey, snuff, and semi-professional weepers. 

The associated excesses have been immortalised in song and story. Perhaps the classic example is the tale of Tim Finnegan, of Finnegan’s Wake fame (speaking of grammar, and before the Joycean police break the door down demanding to see my apostrophe licence, I’m referring here to the ballad, not the book).  

In that, the debauchery descends into a brawl, during which whiskey is spilled down the dearly departed’s throat, inspiring resurrection.

And there’s another example, by the way. Why do we call someone “dearly departed”?  

We know what it’s meant to mean: that the dead person was beloved. The problem is that, on the contrary, it suggests the departure was welcome. At best, it sounds as if we’re complaining about the cost of the funeral.

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