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.
“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:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY
ENGLAND'S SUPREMACY IN THE
ON THE 29TH DAY OF AUGUST, AT THE OVAL
"ITS END WAS PEATE"
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:
GOD IS DEAD IN GEORGIA
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.]