The Etymology of Death, Grief, and Mourning

call_me_when_you__re_sober_by_zhao1My dear readers, what a difficult month it has been. One of my dogs died unexpectedly, from something called spontaneous pneumothorax, which, in a nutshell, means he had holes in his lungs that formed spontaneously and grew progressively worse over time.

I’m not trying to bring you down; I just wanted you to understand why I chose to write today’s post.

After struggling to come up with a more light-hearted topic, I decided to embrace the dark side and write about the etymological origins of death, grief, and mourning. So, without further ado…

Death — the word, not the dude with the scythe — came to us from the Old English word, deað, which referred to death, dying, or cause of death. When plural, it also referred to ghosts. Deað, in turn, came from the Proto-Germanic dauthuz, which was formed by combining the stem dheu-, meaning to die, with the suffix –thuz, meaning an act, process, or condition.

The word grief first appeared in English in the early 1200s, when it was used to refer to hardship, suffering, and pain. It came from the Old French word of the same spelling, which referred to a wrong, an injustice, or a misfortune — and which, in turn, came from the Old French word, grever, meaning to afflict, burden, or oppress. Grever came from the Latin gravare, which meant to make heavy or cause grief, and which came from another Latin word, gravis, which meant weighty. Grief’s more modern meaning, to describe mental pain and sorrow, appeared around 1300.

Like death, the word mourn also came to us from Old English, from the word murnan, which meant to bemoan, to long after, or to be anxious about. Murnan came from a Proto-Germanic word of the same spelling, which meant to remember sorrowfully, and which likely came from the Proto-Indo-European root, (s)mer-, meaning to remember.

I don’t know about you, but I thought it was interesting that mourn seems to be the oldest of the three words. Where I live, grieve is more commonly used than mourn. What about where you live? Do you grieve or mourn? Or do you do both?

Image credit: ZhaoT @ deviantART

15 thoughts on “The Etymology of Death, Grief, and Mourning

  1. Suzanne,
    I am so sorry to hear about your loss. What a shock that must have been-my heart goes out to you-take good care of yourself!
    Such a difficult experience mourning/grieving the loss of a beloved animal. So sad to lose such a special friend.

  2. I’m sorry for your loss. It’s never easy to let our friends go, but I imagine it’s even more difficult when it happens so unexpectedly. I think I hear grieve and mourn about the same around here. Interesting post 🙂

    1. Thanks Janna. Yes, the unexpected loss is definitely worse.

      From what I’m hearing, it seems like grieve vs. mourn is more of a personal choice. Thanks for answering my question. 🙂

  3. Very sorry for your loss!! Having lost several dogs too, I know how painful it can be…
    I’m not really sure about usage here in Montreal, but my gut feeling is that we use “mourn” for the immediate period afterward, say, up to a month or so, and then “grieve” and “grief” more for in the long-term sense. But really they involve the same almost-unbearable sadness. I hope time will help you heal… You’ll still miss him but will probably smile at the memory of him, rather than cry. Take care of yourself.

    1. Thanks Ellie. It’s hard, isn’t it? Fortunately, he gave us lots of good memories to smile at. 🙂

      And thanks for your thoughts on grieve vs. mourn. It’s funny, but I think of grief as the more immediate response, whereas mourn feels a little more distant or descriptive.

  4. Hate to hear the source for this blog, Suzanne. I’ve seen him in your posts and as a companion for Henry. He will live on in your hearts… and in your writings, I suspect.

  5. I know this has been a difficult time for you. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when that time comes for me–the passing of such a beloved member of the family. Our fur-babies are like our children.

    Here in “the South”, I often hear grieve more than anything else. I, on the other hand, have always preferred the word “mourn”. I think this is because the words “grief” and “grieve” sound agonizing, and I don’t like to think of sadness as painful. I know it’s called “heartbreak,” but I’d prefer to mourn a loss than grieve over it, personally. To be honest, though, my view of death doesn’t necessarily include either words. While I will mourn those I love whom pass, I want to, instead, celebrate their life. In my eyes, death is such a normal part of life–it comes as swiftly and nonchalantly as breathing–so, when that time does come, I would prefer to celebrate the memories and the life of the one who passed, rather than mourn over the memories we’ll never have. I’ve told my husband, to which he laughed, that if my time comes before his, regardless of our ages, I want everyone to celebrate their memories in the form of a Broadway production!

    Sending you much love, friend!

  6. Suzanne, These words – death, grieve, mourn – interest many, especially us, who have deaths occur close (spouse, in my case, 15 months ago). I think, your etymological view (also my own) helps and clarifies the dynamic and turbulent impacts of close deaths. So, thank you. I would add only, that ‘mourn’ also maps to Indo-European stems for ‘death’ as in current ‘mortal’, ‘mortuary’, ‘mortgage’, ‘amortize’, etc. I wish you tenderness, peace and grace in your grieving —> mourning —> transforming. Russell Bailery

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