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I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to change the conversation around health issues. The first step in that process is to look at the meaning of words in common use. If those words don’t convey what we think they do, it’s important to rethink them, and to use other words. A great example is the word “prevention” in the context of breast cancer. Since there is no guaranteed way to keep from developing breast cancer, anything offered as doing that or promising that outcome is, to say the least, inaccurate. It would be more accurate to talk about “risk reduction.”
Now that I have ALS — a devastating, relentless and pernicious disease that is robbing me of my ability walk and talk (before it robs me of all my other functions) — other words and phrases capture my attention.
My very first blog — https://barbarabrenner.net/?p=20 — tackled one of these phrases: “How Are You?” While I won’t rehash what I said there, I do want to talk about other things that are part of common parlance in English, but that maybe wouldn’t be if we thought more about what they mean. My examples today are the phrases “I’m dying to . . .,” and “Be well.”
Are You Really Dying to Do Anything?
Wanting to be erudite about the phrase “I’m dying to . . .,” I sought Google’s help in discovering the source of the phrase. Unfortunately, this is one occasion where a Google search failed me, but I did find lots of examples of the use of the phrase. Here are few choice examples:
— “I’m dying to travel the world”
— “I’m dying to hear what you have to say”
— “I’m dying to be beautiful”
Wikepedia describes the phrase as hyperbole. I think that’s an understatement. If you look at these phrases you will notice that the goals set out will be impossible to achieve if the speaker is dead. As a dear friend said to me, why would the deepest expression about longing be about death and not about living? So why don’t we say, instead, “I’m living to . . .”
I realize that because I know that I am dying (not tomorrow, but sooner than I thought I would be and sooner than I lot of people I know are likely to be) and know what will kill me, I may be a little oversensitive to the phrase “I’m dying to do . . . .” But really folks, is there anything so important to you that you want to die to achieve it? And even if there are one or two things that meet that threshold, it can’t be that most things do.
How about, “I can’t wait to . . . ,” or “I’m glad to be alive so that I can . . .” as better phrasing? Next time someone says to you “I’m dying to . . . ,” ask them what they really mean.
Be Well With an Incurable Disease?
And then there are the related phrases that we American English speakers seem to toss off at the drop of a hat: “be well,” and “I hope you are well.” I can’t tell you the number of emails I get from people who know my situation that start or end with “I hope this message finds you well,” or “be well.” They are matched in number by the number of times I part company with friends who say, “Be well.”
In my better moods, I usually respond to the “I hope you are well” inquiry with something like, “I’m as well as I can be given that I have an incurable disease,” followed by the winking emoticon ;-).
But I am much happier when people hope I’m having a good day (a phrase that, long ago, seemed like the epitome of bland saccharin, but now seems to be the preferred alternative for me) or urge me to take care (which I do) rather than wishing me something I will never experience again.
I understand that most people are not faced at this moment with an incurable and fatal illness, and that often “I hope you are well” or “be well” are perfectly appropriate wishes to extend to folks. But, if you know something about someone that makes these phrases inapt, please think twice before you say them.
© Barbara A. Brenner 2011