Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Mon Jun 28 15:21:31 UTC 2004

On Mon, Jun 28, 2004 at 10:12:25AM -0500, Dennis Baron wrote:
> In today's NY Times, Brent Staples, discussing the phenomenon of
> "passing for white," says, "The people who abandoned their families
> were described as 'passed' -- a euphemism for dead." (NYT 10-28-04, p.
> A18. To pass for (=pretend to be, or be recognized as) something else
> goes back in the OED to the 16th c, and in this same sense, to pass for
> white, to the 1930s. But in Nella Larsen's novel "Passing," there is a
> sense of both meanings of passing, pretense and death. Are both senses
> now current, or is the 'death' explanation replacing what I take to be
> the earlier sense of the word?

No, _pass_ 'pretend to be (higher-status person)' is very common still.

A few recent examples, out of many:

2000 C. WEST & D. H. ZIMMERMAN in M. S. Kimmel & A. Aronson
Gendered Soc. Reader 135 As in the case of others who must
`pass,' such as transvestites, Kabuki actors, or Dustin
Hoffman's `Tootsie,' Agnes's case makes visible what culture
has made invisible?the accomplishment of gender.

2000 Newsweek 1 Jan. 30/1 If people with `black blood' can now
be white or at least not black, what becomes of the concept of
passing? Passing, after all, implies a denial of one's
authentic ancestry to be accepted as a member of another race.

2003 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 8 Aug. B30/6 When he copied the
images, he sorted them into categories: `Drag queens; porn;
Gay Rights/protests; AIDS; trying to be like straight people
(passing); Military; Art.'

2004 Independent (Tabloid ed.) 14 Apr. 35/1 His ability to
`pass' for white was later to enable him to play the major
vaudeville circuits in the 1920s, when there was strict

We also have loads of examples of the 'die' sense, of course.

Jesse Sheidlower

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