R.I.P., Mock Obituaries

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On September 30, 2010, a journalistic genre passed away: the mock obituary marking the purported demise of a linguistic phenomenon. According to the coroner's report, the cause of death was rampant overuse.

The genre began its slow decline two years ago, when Gawker reported the death of the semicolon:

The Semicolon died this week at the age of 417 from complications of irrelevancy and misuse. Semicolon was born in England in 1591 to Ben Jonson, the first notable writer to use them "systematically." The mark of punctuation dedicated its career to connecting independent clauses and indicating a closer relationship between the clauses than a period does. But mostly it just confused the shit out of English students everywhere. …

Semicolon is survived by colon, parenthesis and em dash. In lieu of flowers, please send anecdotes of times you have been confused by a semicolon to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, care of Jonathan Franzen.

A more serious assault befell the genre on September 19th, when Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten declared the sad end of the whole English language:

The English language, which arose from humble Anglo-Saxon roots to become the lingua franca of 600 million people worldwide and the dominant lexicon of international discourse, is dead. It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness. It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself.

The end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the "youngest" daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their "younger" daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the "Obama's." This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame.

The genre met its maker with a final blow on September 30th, when Artworld Salon (as discussed on The Economist's Johnson blog) posted an obituary for the word "curator":

“Curator” R.I.P.

“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

Before the mock-obit gimmick was exploited to bemoan the fate of punctuation, words, and the entire language, it had a long, healthy life in other spheres, such as sports, politics, and religion. A high point occurred in 1882, after Australia unexpectedly defeated the powerhouse England in a test cricket series. The magazine Cricket: A Weekly Record of The Game announced the end of England's dominance in the sport:


A few days later, The Sporting Times followed suit:

In Affectionate Remembrance
which died at the Oval
29th AUGUST 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing
friends and acquaintances


N.B.—The body will be cremated and the
ashes taken to Australia.

From then on, the England-Australia cricket series would be known as The Ashes (complete with an urn). British journalists occasionally mourned the death of other sports, as when The Times wrote in 1914, "In loving memory of British Rowing, which passed away at Henley on Saturday July 4th. Deeply lamented by many sorrowing followers." (Harvard won the Grand Challenge Cup that year.)

Time, whose publisher Henry Luce was no fan of FDR, drafted a mock obit for the New Deal in 1944:

Death Revealed. The New Deal, 10, after long illness; of malnutrition and desuetude. Child of the 1932 election campaign, the New Deal had four healthy years, began to suffer from spots before the eyes in 1937, and never recovered from the shock of war. Last week its father, Franklin Roosevelt, pronounced it dead.

In 1968, Time recounted a more Nietzschean death notice:

Two years ago, Satirist Anthony Towne tried to resolve the theological debate over whether God is dead by publishing an obituary of the Deity. The deadpan story was turned down by a number of journals, but finally appeared in the Christian student magazine Motive under the New York Times-like headline:

Eminent Deity Succumbs During Surgery—Succession in Doubt

Towne followed up the obituary with a whole book, Excerpts from the Diaries of the Late God. Now that's commitment to a genre. Will we soon be seeing the Diaries of the Late English Language? And what language will it be written in?

[In the comments, D.O. points out that we've indulged in mock-elegizing here on Language Log, too: see Mark Liberman's post from last year, "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P." And Geoff Pullum's "The coming death of whom: photo evidence" was something of a pre-obituary.]


  1. Glenn Maynard said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    As I plan to continue using the semicolon as I always have, does that make me a user of necrolinguistics?

  2. groki said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:36 am

    And what language will it be written in?

    why, Late English, of course.

  3. Jason Crawford said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:54 am

    On a related note, see "The Tragic Death of Practically Everything": http://technologizer.com/2010/08/18/the-tragic-death-of-practically-everything/

  4. John S. Wilkins said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    And what language will it be written in?

    French, of course. Or Chinese. Or both, in a dual text.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    I don't see anything wrong with talking about 'the youngest daughter.' You may not know how many there are.

  6. D.O. said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:23 am

    You forgot to mention LL classics "Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.

    [(bgz) Quite right. I've added an update.]

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    When the Harvard faculty banned football from campus in 1860, students staged a mock funeral. They buried a coffin containing a football, a student delivered a eulogy ("The wise men who make big laws around a little table have stretched out their arms to protect your eyes and noses"), a funeral ode written for the occasion was recited by all the mourners, and a memorial tablet was erected, bearing these words:

    Obiit July 2, 1860
    Aet. LX Years.

    I hardly need to mention that the sport did indeed rise again.

  8. Matthew Scouten said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    Reports of the death of the semicolon are greatly exaggerated. I assure you he is alive and well and living in a computer science department somewhere in America.

  9. Jayarava said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    So this is the death of "the death of"?

  10. Dan T. said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    An Elton John song ("Levon") says "The New York Times said God is dead", but as far as I know, that paper never published that obituary.

    [When Towne's mock obit for God ran in Motive magazine, it had the appearance of a New York Times article, down to the dateline and typeface. Then Motive took out an advertisement in the Mar. 6, 1966 issue of the Times, reproducing an excerpt of the obit and maintaining the Times style. See page image here.

    No idea if that was what inspired Elton John.]

  11. Theodore said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    Matthew Scouten said,

    Reports of the death of the semicolon are greatly exaggerated. I assure you he is alive and well and living in a computer science department somewhere in America.

    I've seen him there, but he looks like he's near the end of the line.

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    After many years attempting to correct my students' use of the semicolon, followed by many years' not bothering to address usage at all, I occasionally issue the following advice:

    "Nearly 100% of the semicolons I have found in student papers are used incorrectly. This means that YOU probably use it incorrectly. I personally don't care, but other readers may judge you on this fact. So here is my simple advice. Stop using the semicolon. Just stop it. Stop."

  13. Thomas said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    It seems appropriate that the mock obituary for the semicolon incorrectly identifies its origin; it dates back to medieval times. I, for one, am grateful for its continued existence, especially in French. I only regret that it's not one of the habits that spread eastward with Napoleon as it would be a huge help in German.

  14. Albert Vogler said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Re: "It seems appropriate that the mock obituary for the semicolon incorrectly identifies its origin; it dates back to medieval times."

    Personally, I would have used a colon….

  15. D.O. said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Stop using the semicolon. Just stop it. Stop.

    How does it compare to other punctuation marks? Periods and commas are too numerous to get near 100% wrong, but what about colons and em-dashes?

  16. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    My freshmen writers almost never use em-dashes; when they do, they often form it with a single hyphen character, making things a challenge to read.

    They goof up colons a lot too, but they appear less frequently, so I can't recall even roughly how often they are goofed up. Students associate them with lists, which is natural, but the construction I see the most often looks like this:

    "I like many vegetables, such as: beans, carrots, and potatoes."

    And yes, that comma is often replaced with a semicolon (or period) and is just as likely to be absent.

  17. MJ said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    I just edited an ms. that contained circa 400 semicolons preceding a dependent clause.

  18. Greg Bowen said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    So something like this?

    This sentence is really hard to read;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; because it has so many semicolons in it.

  19. MJ said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    @Greg, yeah, I deliberated about whether I should use the singular or the plural. The plural didn't sound right either.

  20. xah lee said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    one thing i've been curious about, is the etymology of R.I.P. Anyone?

    • 〈Erik Naggum And The Phrase RIP〉

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