Let me waste your time and mine by objecting to something that gets my goat. I do so even though I know that my objecting will make no difference and my goat will continue to get got.
Is there a limit to the amount of being got that a goat can put up with? I would imagine so. And when that limit is reached, and the goat can take no more being got, what will the goat do? I presume the goat will die, which will be end of both the goat and the matter. And that, as it happens, is the point. My subject is the verb to die.
For obvious reasons, the verb is as old as the language. Like the deed it describes it is short, simple, emphatic and unambiguous. So you'd think it would be hard to improve on.
But you'd be wrong. Lots of people want to improve on it and those would-be improvers include - and here I pause to roll my eyes high and to the left in the manner that connotes a mixture of exasperation and weary disbelief - our prime minister.
The prime minister was on the radio discussing the Queen's Birthday honours. It seems that the recipient of an honour had died before the honour could be bestowed, which is of course to be regretted. But the prime minister did not say that the recipient had died. She said that the recipient had - are you sitting comfortably now? Have you ensured that all frangible items of value, as well as objects that might serve as projectiles, have been placed beyond immediate reach? Good - passed.
Now, I am aware that the prime minister is far from the only person to use this term. Indeed these days it is as common to hear passed or some variant thereof as it is to hear the good old Anglo-Saxon died. But neither the fact that it is common nor the fact that the Prime Minister says it makes it right.
Human beings are unique in being able to contemplate their own death. And they are also unique in pretending it doesn't happen. So passed is a euphemism, a way of linguistically avoiding the awkward truth of death.
The source phrase is either passed on or passed over. Both are religious in origin. They imply that the dead have not ceased to exist but that they have merely made a real-estate transaction, shifting residence from the grim Mortality Cul-de-Sac to the well-lit and spacious Perpetuity Parade where the views are forever.
Such religious beliefs are far less common nowadays than once they were, but we have not stopped dodging death with words. A frequent variant these days is passed away. It suggests a vague dissipation of life, a sort of flickering ectoplasm that has finally faded on the margins of dusk and gone who knows where. It's prissy, vague, evasive and cowardly.
As perhaps its users have begun to sense because now they tend to ditch the prepositions altogether and, like the prime minister, they just say passed. But passed what? Passed Go? Passed wind? Passed the ball? Passed some barrier? Passed from one realm into the other? Passed the final exam of existence and been rewarded with an afterlife of limitless prosperity? Nobody knows and nobody says. It is merely left hanging to imply the possibility that the end is not the end. And in the increasingly secular state that is New Zealand the prime minister should be ashamed of using it. For if you can use words to deny dying what can you not use words to deny? Words are all we've got.
In a flash it happened, that indefensible act...
But as I said at the start, I know I am wasting my time. Nothing I say or do will make a jot of difference. Language evolves in exactly the same way as animal species evolve. There is no guiding hand. The language will go where it goes and will not be steered by the likes of you or me or the goat. We are just dinghies in the path of an oil tanker. It looms above us. We bang our fists on its great iron hull. It does not even notice.
But we persist. Because the cause is good. And if the prow of the great tanker just rides over us and drives us down into the deep and salty, holds us under till our lungs go pop, what more honourable epitaph could there be on a tombstone: "In defending the language against prissiness and dishonesty, he passed."