feet first

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 20 22:04:35 UTC 2011

An interesting piece of cultural conversion. There is an expression in
Russian that translates, precisely, "feet forward", usually in the
context of "being carried feet forward", that means essentialy being
dead. It does not mean literally being dead--it is either an
anticipatory or circumstantial euphemism, likely being used, among other
reasons, to ward off "evil eye" and other superstitions (mentioning
death or the dead being one of them). This expression--and the
associated tradition of carrying corpses feet first--is responsible for,
among other things, hospitals and ambulances always wheeling or carrying
patients with the head forward. My father (a physician, with 20 year
experience in Moscow and nearly 30 here) and I were discussing this
expression, specifically in connection with hospital practices (both US
and Russia). (It was not the first time the topic has come up, so it is
something on immigrant doctors' minds.)

Although such traditions are clearly not universal, an inspection of a
number of Italian and French films demonstrates that corpses are
generally carried feet first and the living are normally carried head first.

Not so in the US. US being a litigious culture, one of the victims is
this tradition. Hospitals and other medical facilities (except
ambulances) transport living patients feet first, ostensibly so that
they can see where they are going. (The fact that some patients may well
be in a coma or have no sensible idea where they are does not prevent
this practice.) So one would expect the proverbial "feet first" to
disappear from American English.

Well... no!

> A source close to Lieberman told the New York Times that the senator
> decided retirement was preferable to defeat. "I don't think he wanted
> to go out feet first," the person said.

I suppose, one could blame this on Lieberman and "source close to" him
being of a certain age where "feet first" still meant something. In this
case, it's not even the primary meaning, as the reference is to the
"political death" and not a physical one.


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