Born Alone, Die Alone: What Does This Mean?

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Oct 24 18:20:10 UTC 2011

Other variations on the theme include "You're born naked, you die
naked" and "You're born broke, you die broke" (i.e., you can't take it
with you, or as John Lennon put it, you don't take nothing with you
but your soul).


On Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 2:06 PM, Garson O'Toole wrote:
> [Begin comment by Fred Shapiro]
> I apologize for my cluelessness, but there is a quote by Steven Jobs
> that is getting some publicity and that makes no sense to me.  He
> said, "You're born alone, you're going to die alone."  What does this
> mean?  Many people die alone, but many do not, and it is not clear to
> me that anyone is born alone.  Some babies are given birth by mothers
> in secretive circumstances and the mother dies in childbirth, but this
> is unusual and the baby may quickly die when this happens.
> [End comment by Fred Shapiro]
> Here is one guess for the meaning Jobs was trying to communicate:
> The subjective experience of dying is solitary: Jobs may have thought
> this proposition was true even if one was surrounded by loving
> individuals. Jobs expressed ambivalence and uncertainty about the
> possible existence of an "afterlife". He may have thought that if an
> afterlife existed then one would enter it alone.
> The subjective experience of birth is solitary: It is not clear how
> well developed the neural system is at birth. If it is well developed
> enough that it is possible to speak of a subjective experience then
> emerging through the birth canal would presumably be a solitary
> experience.
> Here are some quickly obtained unverified GB matches:
> 1847, The journey of life by Catherine Sinclair
> [Begin excerpt]
> Since, then, we are not only born alone, but must die alone, why
> should so much of our intermediate time be spent in avoiding to remain
> alone with our own thoughts?
> [End excerpt]
> 1861, Eighty sketches of sermons by Francis Close
> [Begin excerpt]
> We are born alone, must die alone, and must "every one of us give an
> account of himself to God." (Rom. xiv. 12.)
> [End excerpt]
> There is a GB match in 1853 that really seems to be from 1862, and
> some other possible matches in the 1860s. I didn't look in any other
> databases.
> The religious quotations seem to be connected to the belief that the
> moral evaluation of a life will be performed for each individual human
> life.
> In recent times a script writer for the television series Mad Men used
> the expression according to WikiQuote
> Smoke Gets in Your Eyes [1.1]
> Don Draper: The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't
> exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.
> You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch
> of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never
> forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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