Death, dying, and exposure to it is a common experience shared by individuals and families around the world. Everyone has different theories about what happens at the time of death and different ways of dealing with it.
Because of our shared experiences, certain words, ideas, concepts, and sentiments express death in different languages. You might even want to add some to your vocabulary as you grapple with this common experience shared by all.
Here are 14 ways to refer to death in different languages:
- "Mortem": Latin
- "Morte": Italian and Portuguese
- "Rest in Peace": English
- "Al-Moat": Arabic
- "Thanatos": Greek
- "Muerte": Spanish
- "Rest Easy": English
- "Kifo": Swahili
- "Siwang": Modern Chinese
- "Tod": German
- "Decesso": Italian
- "Passed Away": English
- "Dood": Afrikaans
- "Smrtka": Czech
1. “Mortem” in Latin
Latin is one of the “mother” languages from which Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French stem. You can also see its influence in English, German, Dutch, Swedish, and several other European languages. You can see Latin words for death in many languages around the world.
You hear the word “postmortem” on nearly every crime TV show, in every autopsy report, and heard in conjunction with official records regarding someone’s death. “Postmortem” can refer both to the time after someone’s death and a specific examination to determine the cause of death such as a “post-mortem report” or “autopsy.”
2. “Morte” in Italian and Portuguese
Remember how Latin influenced a lot of European languages? “Mortem” in Latin became “morte” in both Italian and Portuguese. Translated, this word means “death” and used when talking about the fact that someone died or when speaking about someone’s death.
3. “Rest in Peace” in English
“Rest in peace” is a gentler way of saying someone has died. This phrase implies that the person who died is at rest, at peace, and is no longer struggling or in pain. The saying helps friends and loved ones of the deceased focus on the good of a person finally being at peace and rest, rather than the loss felt by those left behind.
“Rest in peace” is a euphemism for death. Though you might have difficulty translating many euphemisms from one language into another, most languages do have a variation of “rest in peace.” The original phrase comes from Latin’s “requiescat in pace.” Here are a few other versions in languages around the world:
- Portuguese: Descanse em paz
- Dutch: Rust in vrede
- Spanish: Descanse en paz
- Norwegian: hvil i fred
- Italian: Riposi/Riposino in pace
- German: Ruhe in Frieden
- Arabic: arqid fi salam
- Tagalog: Sumalangit nawa ang iyong kaluluwa
- Hindi: shaanti se aaraam karen
- Hebrew: May his soul be bound in the bundle of life
4. “Al-Moat” in Arabic
Al-Moat is the Arabic term that describes someone passing away. The equivalent in English is “passed away” or “died.” You use this word when discussing the fact that a person has passed away and their life on earth has come to an end. If you hear someone say, “Abdullah al-Moat,” they’re saying that Abdulla has passed away. Just like in English, the phrase is a gentler way of saying someone has died.
5. “Thanatos” in Greek
Thanatos has been used to talk about death since ancient Greek mythology. Originally, Thanatos was the god, or personification, of death.
The word continues to be used in present-day contexts where it roughly translates to “death,” “demise,” or “casualty.”
6. “Muerte” in Spanish
Muerte is one of the most common words used in the Spanish language to describe death. Similar to English, “muerte” can be used and translated in many ways, including:
If you’re trying to say, “I’m sorry for her death” at a funeral, then you’ll say, “Lo siento por su muerte.”
7. “Rest Easy” in English
Though you’ll hear the sister phrase “rest in peace” more often, “rest easy” is another way of saying the same thing in a far more casual manner. “Rest easy” is often used when a close friend is speaking to the deceased and saying goodbye at a graveside or a scattering ashes ceremony. This phrase is not traditionally used in condolence cards or messages sent to a grieving family, though “rest in peace” is widely accepted.
8. “Kifo” in Swahili
“Kifo” translates directly to “death” in Swahili and as with English, this word is used in the Swahili version of “bringer of death” or “grim reaper.” The bringer of death in Swahili is “kuleta kifo” and those that speak this language may not altogether avoid it. A popular Swahili proverb translates to, “Death has its advantages, too,” meaning that death is not necessarily all bad.
9. “Siwang” in Mandarin Chinese
Mandarin Chinese is said to be one of the most difficult languages to master. There are over 50,000 characters that make up the Chinese alphabet and most educated people only master around 8,000. Because of the robust nature of their language, one word can have hundreds of variations. This is certainly true of “siwang.” In Chinese, this word can translate to many others including:
With just a few character changes, the root word can even change to mean the death penalty or execution! Be sure what you’re saying if you want to use this word in a conversation. If you’re not careful, you could accidentally say someone was given the death penalty when you meant to relay condolences about someone’s death!
10. “Tod” in German
As with almost every other language around the world, German has several words that all mean “death.” “Tod” is the most common word and is used in both written and spoken formats when saying someone has died.
In the medical realm, a doctor wouldn’t use “tod” but would rather use “exitus” when describing time or reason for death. Finally, the word “sterben” is used when speaking of a specific type of death, such as death from a heart attack.
11. “Decesso” in Italian
Does this look familiar to you? If you’re an English speaker, it probably does. The word that English speakers use that looks like this one is “decease.” The difference, however, is that “decesso” in Italian doesn’t just refer to someone’s death or “decease.” “Decesso” specifically refers to death that comes at the end of an illness such as cancer or another terminal illness.
12. “Passed Away” in English
“Passed away” is one of the most common euphemisms for “death” in English. The gentler way of saying someone died has also become widely accepted around the world and in many languages.
In Hebrew, the phrase is reduced to the word “niftar.” In Italian, the one word is “trapasso” and translates to someone’s “passing from this life to a better place.” The Yiddish phrase is “oyshoykhn di neshome” and means to “breathe out one’s soul.”
13. “Dood” in Afrikaans
Death in Afrikaans is “dood.” This is the word used regularly when speaking about death in general, the act of dying, and the absence of life, among others.
You can also find the word, “doodsengel” in Afrikaans. Sound familiar? It probably should since it’s very similar to the English words “death” and “angel.” It translates to the “angel of death” or “grim reaper.”
14. “Smrtka” in Czech
In Czech, “smrt” is the word for death. Add “ka” at the end and you get the word for the “angel of death,” “the demon of death,” or the “grim reaper.”
Many languages have a word for the angel of death or the grim reaper. The mysterious black-clad figure frequently factors into common beliefs about death and dying around the world. While all translations hold the same common meaning, depending on location, the name might translate into several other meanings, such as “angel of death,” “demon of death,” “ghoul,” “monster,” and even “vampire.”
In Germany, it’s called the “gevatter tod.” In Italy, the reaper is known as the “triste mietitore.” In Wales, the figure of doom and gloom is called “medelwr grim.” There are also words for this figure in Nepali, Kurdish, Korean, Sudanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and at least 65 other languages.
A Common Experience Shared by All
Given that death is such a shared experience, it’s no wonder that every language on earth has the vocabulary to describe it. While individual words might hold slightly different meanings, we all understand what death translates to in its most basic sense — a life that has ended.
- Shewmon, D. Alan. “Words for Death.” Issues, Linguist List, 1 September 2003. linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-2289/
- “Grim Reaper in Different Languages.” Words in Different Languages, In Different Languages Database, 2020. indifferentlanguages.in/word/english/c974cdd/grim+reaper