Premature Death

litbonanza.jpgEver notice how some phrases that have always seemed innocuous suddenly get really offensive when you stop to think about what they actually mean? (Look up “rule of thumb” sometime if you want to spoil that figure of speech for yourself.) The one that’s started bothering me since I got old enough to be sensitive about such things is “premature deaths”.

Every time a solemn health bureaucrat reports a discovery that something is bad for you, you will hear these words: “Studies have shown that [the bad thing] has caused [some number or percentage of] premature deaths in the last [time unit].”

Well, that certainly makes us want to avoid [the bad thing], but have you ever asked yourself how many of the other kind of deaths it has caused?

What other kind? Why, the non-premature kind, of course. What shall we call them? “Post-mature” deaths? “It’s about time, you old geezer!” deaths? Hold on here — if you want to label a death as non-premature, you should have to ask the dying person first. “Would you say that your imminent death is premature?” I’m betting you’d find that almost every death is premature.

“Oh no,” the prim health bureaucrat assures me, “that’s not what it means at all. We have calculated everyone’s life expectancy and the probabilities of dying from various causes, so we know when you would normally be expected to die, and of what, so if you die sooner than that, of that cause, then it’s considered premature.” (Was that a condescending smile for this pathetic ignoramus?)

Yes folks, your days are actually numbered — literally! Here’s a little secret I bet you didn’t know: when you’re born they tattoo a little “best before” date where you’ll never notice it — on the underside of your tongue, amongst all the veins and salivary glands and stuff you’d really rather not think about (sorry!). Moreover, it’s printed backward, like a mirror image, so it is really hard to recognize as an expiry date. Why? So your dentist can check periodically to see how much longer you are good for. Yes, they’re all in on it, the dental hygienists too! Don’t let them catch you checking for it in the mirror.

Picture the doctor standing over your death bed with a clipboard and a watch: “Come on … come on … Dang! Missed the deadline! Oh well. Nurse, scratch out that check mark in the premature death box.”

Do they have a special “Post-Mature” ward at the hospital where they give token care to people who will no longer swell the number of premature deaths when they kick off? Based on experience, I think maybe yes. But it isn’t a separate ward; everyone just knows….

OK, I’ve beaten this horse to death (there’s another phrase we might want to give up, especially around Animal Rights folks). I just hope I’ve generated enough “cringe factor” to discourage the use of this particular offensive term and encourage those humorless health bureaucrats to find some other way of expressing their statistical inferences.

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Jess Brewer is a would-be SF writer who has masqueraded as a physicist at UBC for three decades. In 2008 he won the CAP Brockhouse Medal for promoting a science fiction idea into an important tool of condensed matter physics research. He now takes Spring term off every year to write, but has discovered that his true voice is the "rant".

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