You say coffin, I say casket

Charles 12 Comments

By Guy Keleny in the Independent here.

“…this column does not wish to sound like a choleric pedant holding forth in about the year 1950, so we do not go on about ‘Americanisms’.

“The simple truth is that there is more commerce of words eastward across the Atlantic than westward because American power, wealth and culture loom larger in the world than British. There is no point in resenting it. So the following, from a news story last Saturday, cannot be called an error, though it still strikes the ear as odd: “Sales of ‘green funerals’ – where the casket is made of cardboard, wicker or bamboo – spiked from £7m to £8m.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “casket”, meaning a small box or chest for jewels or suchlike, dates back to the 15th century. Its use as a synonym for “coffin” is first observed in the US in 1870. But here’s the interesting bit. The word “coffin” itself has undergone a similar shift of meaning. It once meant a chest, case or casket; that obsolete meaning is last recorded in 1677. The modern meaning, a box for a corpse, dates from 1525. We may imagine choleric pedants about the year 1550 lamenting this corruption of the language.”

ED’S NOTE – Xenophobes will have observed with patriotic disdain and chauvinistic alarm recent deep incursions into Brit Eng by the ‘casket’ word, which looks likely, now, to displace our homely indigenous ‘coffin’. Is this something that irks you?  


  1. Charles

    “Caskets! a vile modern phrase, which compels a person … to shrink … from the idea of being buried at all.” [Hawthorne, 1863]

    Compare with another word we funeralistas take for granted at our peril:

    …'(late 13c. in Anglo-Latin), “flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin,” from O.Fr. herce “long rake, harrow,” from L. hirpicem “harrow,” from Oscan hirpus “wolf,” supposedly in allusion to its teeth.
    The funeral display so called because it resembled a harrow, a large rake for breaking up soil. Sense extended to other temporary frameworks built over dead people, then to “vehicle for carrying a body,” a sense first recorded 1640s.’ (Online Etymology Dictionary.)

    You say hearse, I say… candelabrum. With teeth. A wolf in car’s clothing that looks like a lampstand. A harrowing apparition…?

    Even so, I’m voting for ‘deplore casket’ just because it’s sounds euphemistically sanitizing to me. Don’t get me started on “hygienic treatment for the chapel of rest at the funeral home” (replacing ensewered bodily fluids with chemicals for displaying corpses at funeral factories).

  2. Charles

    Surely a casket is rectangular, whereas a coffin usually narrows to the feet end – so there is a significant difference, they are not synonyms?
    Also, USA being what it is, caskets are often all satin and hinges and cost a fortune. I mean, just look at the thing in the photo…

  3. Charles

    It’s lovely, isn’t it? I want one of those, too.

    Yes, casket is generic whereas coffin applies pretty much exclusively to the toe-pincher shape we know and love.

    And yet Brits increasingly talk of casket, that’s the thing — just as so many say passed, not died. There used to be a social/intellectual preference for simple, blunt words – shut the door in pref to close the door. Genteel euphemism was deprecated. But ‘people who should know better’ say passed, more and more of them…

  4. Charles

    Then what, GM, should we call Andy Clarke’s creations, below this post, neither rectanglular nor narrowing at the feet? Coff-kits? Caskins? Coffettes? Coffeekins? Perhaps we Brits need a new word that neither discriminates nor Americanizes.

    A casket sounds nice, like a cask-basket, a sort of chaise-longue for a lounging bottle of liqor. You wouldn’t mind coughing up a few grand for a casket, but a coffin? It’s the last thing we do before we croak, a ghastly image and quite unfit for a funeralhome’s glossy brochure.

  5. Charles

    I think Jonathan hits the nail on the lid, so to speak, when he says you’d expect to fork out more for a casket than a coffin. The usage may have commercial intent. It sounds more expensive. However, Americans may not get English U- and non-U snobbery. Whether top quality or not, we prefer the honest word ‘coffin’ to casket just as we pass the salt and pepper round the table rather than fancy-sounding ‘cruet’.

      1. Charles

        Careful, Jonathan. This post has been picked up by the Funeral Consumers Alliance in the US, so it’ll be being read by all manner of Americans.

        And a Canadian. Cassandra, below, is Canadian. Hoe good to see that she is sound about coffins.

        I have a feeling that our Australian cousins have become very casketized.

        I love doodkist, Jed.

  6. Charles

    I think of a coffin as the old fashioned 8 sided burial boxes that taper at the feet. A casket is a 4 sided box that became popularized during the industrial era because of the ease of manufacturing. As a home funeral advocate I most appreciate a home made coffin which is made specifically to fit the person whose body lies inside it. The casket speaks to the ‘one size fits all’ mentality of consumerism.

    1. Charles


      interesting stuff

      my take is fairly simplistic, a casket has four sides, a coffin has six

      and yes, ‘that thing in the photo’ is pretty huge and resting, I see on one of those mechanical devices that electronically lowers said casket into the depths of it’s crypt, btw doesn’t Barry A have one of these………………? The lowering device, I mean



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