paid their respects
nbierm65 at CALVIN.EDU
Wed Jan 10 20:20:47 UTC 2007
Here's what I came up with:
Paying our `final respects' to the language of death
By Nathan Bierma
January 10, 2007
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Last week, along with many other Grand Rapidians, I
lined up along the motorcade route to pay my respects as President Gerald R.
Ford's funeral procession passed by.
Then I wondered, how do you "pay your respects"? What exactly are "respects,"
and how do you "pay" them?
It got me thinking about the elevated, ceremonial language we use around the
death of public figures, such as the former president and soul music icon James
Brown, who died within a day of each other last month and whose funerals
dominated news coverage. For those occasions, out come such expressions as "pay
respects," "pay homage," "lie in state," "lie in repose," "final farewell."
According to a search of the Lexis-Nexis news database, newspapers used the
phrase "pay their respects" nearly as many times during the week after Brown's
and Ford's deaths as they did the entire month before. On the day of Ford's
funeral in Grand Rapids, a search of Google News found more than 1,000
headlines containing the phrase "pay respects" or "pay their respects." The
phrase was also spilling out of the mouths of television commentators.
So what are "respects"? Curiously, most dictionaries describe this sense of
"respects" as gestures of honor or politeness but say nothing about death or
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "respects" as "deferential or courteous
attentions; actions expressive of respect for a person; politenesses,
courtesies." It labels this entry "Obs.," meaning this meaning is now
"obsolete." The OED quotes Jonathan Swift writing in a 1729 letter, "You are
the first to present my most humble respects to the duchess of Queensberry,"
and another writer in 1782 saying, "Pray give my respects to him." ("Respect"
comes from the Latin "respectus," meaning "to look back at" or "regard.")
In the OED's entry for the phrase "to pay one's respects," the definition is
"to show polite attention to a person by presenting oneself or by making a
call." A line from a 1688 play by Sir George Etherege reads, "If I can I will
slip away, and pay my respects to your lady."
So how did "paying respects" come to be associated specifically (or at least
primarily) with mourning? The answer may lie in a subtle variation of the
phrase that was also in use last week: "paying one's last respects" or "final
respects." (Google News found 83 headlines containing "last respects" and more
than 200 with "final respects" from the week after the deaths of Brown and
The best guess is that "to pay one's last respects" began, either by euphemism
or by eloquence, as a phrase describing honoring the deceased (and comforting
the bereaved family) by making a final visit. It is the last time we can show
"polite attention to a person by presenting oneself or by making a call," in
the OED's words.
But now that the phrase "paying respects" is all but obsolete except when it
is used in the context of funerals, the qualifier "last" or "final" is no
longer necessary. "Paying one's respects" does all the linguistic work that
"paying one's last respects" used to do.
I found some support for my theory from John Ayto, British etymologist and
editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Slang.
"I'd be surprised if it weren't a euphemistic extension of the notion of
paying one's respects to a living person, which seems to go back to the 17th
Century. It became simply a polite way of saying `pay a visit to someone,' with
the implication of presenting them with expressions of one's esteem, regard,
etc. for them," Ayto writes by e-mail. "So I think that what the transfer to
the deceased brings with it is the notion of `visiting' -- being personally
present at the obsequies, as a sign of respect."
Other ceremonial words of mourning are showing their age: "Repose," as in
"lying in repose," was originally a verb meaning "rest," and comes from the
French word "reposer," which the OED says is simply a French combination of
"re-" and "pause."
The word "homage" (which showed up in 167 headlines following Ford's death,
according to Google News), is literally "allegiance to a man" (with "hom-"
meaning "human," as in "homo sapiens"). It originally meant political or
religious loyalty, but drifted to today's sense of showing honor or respect,
especially after a person's death.
One other word I noticed popping up everywhere in posthumous reference to
Gerald Ford was "decent." "The press applied the word `decent' to [Ford] so
often that it stopped sounding like praise and started to sound like an
insult," wrote Jack Shafer at Slate.com. Shafer based his view that "decent" is
a weak word on its meaning of "`adequate' and `just enough to meet the
purpose,'" in his words.
But Shafer didn't acknowledge that "decent" (from the Latin "decens," meaning
"appropriate" or "fitting") has different meanings that can be used separately.
"Decent" can mean "free from immodesty or obscenity," as Merriam-Webster
defines it -- the opposite of "indecent." And there's the way the media was
using "decent" -- Merriam-Webster's fifth definition: "marked by moral
integrity, kindness, and goodwill."
The fact that "decent" can sometimes mean "adequate" might weaken its overall
impact, but it's not exactly faint praise.
You can contact Nathan Bierma at onlanguage at gmail.com.
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune
Nathan Bierma writes the weekly "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune.
He is also contributing editor to Books & Culture magazine, and has taught
writing at Calvin College, where he works as communications and research
coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. His website is
>>> "Nathan Bierma" <nbierm65 at calvin.edu> 1/2/2007 7:51 PM >>>
Here in Grand Rapids (home not only of the Ford Museum, but also Calvin
College, where I work and write my "On Language" column), I'm keeping an eye
the Ford ceremonies and trying to keep my temperature down every ten times a
anchor solemnly says (of mourners famous and anonymous) "paid their respects."
The relevant OED citations for the noun "respect" involve honor, deference,
courtesy, etc. (see defn. 17) But none, apparently, involve honor
in the context of mourning a death.
Can anyone shed light on whether "paid their respects" could historically
to paying homage in the context of mourning, and was later narrowed to mean
only homage-in-mourning--or whether the mourning-only was a usage that
If you do, I won't wait till your funeral to pay you respects.
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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