Lying in State: Changing Perceptions Change Language

By Maeve Maddox

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Ladybird Johnson will lie in repose in Austin…

This business of “lying in repose” is a fairly new phenomenon in American speech.

The custom of exposing the dead body of an important person in a ceremonial manner before burial has been around for a very long time. The English expression for describing it has too.

The common way to describe this custom in English is to say that the body is lying in state. The word “state” here has the meaning of “pomp” or “formal dignity.”

In London in 1965 I was in the long line of people who shuffled past Winston Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall. A similar scene took place there in 2002 when the Queen Mother died. According to the British press, she did not “lie in repose.” She lay in state.

So why do American journalists have so much trouble with the expression?

I’ve come across websites that go to great lengths to provide different definitions for “lying in state,” “lying in honor,” and “lying in repose.” These definitions may catch on, but they seem to be an effort to create differences where none need exist.

I think that what has happened is that Americans have so narrowed the meaning of “state” that the expression “to lie in state” no longer makes sense to them when applied to anyone other than a king or an American president. They confuse “state” in “lying in state” with “state” in “state funeral.” When a non-president, like Coretta Scott King, or Ladybird Johnson, is given the honor of lying in state, reporters who associate “state” with “the State” feel the need for some other expression. (I find “lying in repose” especially unfortunate. To me it sounds like something made up by a funeral director, like “slumber room.”)

Another expression that has come into use because of changing social conditions is the Devil is in the details. People use this expression to express exasperation with having to pay attention to what they perceive as tedious details necessary to complete a project.

People of an earlier age had a different view of details. They said that God is in the details.

Although the expression is often attributed to German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the concept was familiar in the European Middle Ages.

Monks spent days illuminating one letter in a manuscript, offering the time and effort as an act of worship. Ordinary workmen took pains with their daily labor with the same attitude.

Different times, different ways of looking at life: a thought for us historical novelists to keep in mind.

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5 Responses to “Lying in State: Changing Perceptions Change Language”

  • gegtik

    I’m always skeptical when somebody “sheds light” on commonly used idioms, having seen far too many emails from friends which had been previously debunked by snopes. Do you have any corroboratory sources for these idiom facts?

  • Maeve

    to lie in state: of a dead body, to be ceremoniously exposed to view before internment

    The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 1705 source for the use of this expression with this meaning.

    God is in the details has been attributed to more than one modern person, but the attitude, if not the exact wording, was a commonplace during the Middle Ages. I know this from my study of medieval history and literature. I shall try to locate a contemporary quotation for you if I can.

    As for the other expressions that I mention in this article ( the variations of to lie in state and the saying the Devil is in the details), they’re new to me. I’ll try to track down some dates.

  • Maggie Stewart

    Re Winston Churchill’s “lying in state ”
    I also waited for 3 hours to file past his coffin. Whatsmore my husband was one of the R.A.F officers who was at one of the corners of the catafalque. I am proud to have been there and proud that my husband was chosen to be where he was. it was an honour for him.
    It was fitting that Churchill was “lying in state ” The British people owed him so much and the proof was the number of people who filed past in respect.

  • Maeve

    Just as an anonymous person in the crowd that day I felt a part of history. How much more of an experience it must have been for you and your husband!

    While living in England I had two R.A.F. connections. When I first came to London I stayed with the famiy of a retired Wing Commander. I also spent more than one Christmas with another R.A.F. couple at the base near Lincoln. Happy memories.

  • Charles Reesink

    As a Frenchman living in Canada, I wish to add my grain of salt to debate of lying ins state.
    I strongly agreewith Maeven that HRH E II regina is head of state of Canada, and so state funerals for James Flaherty should translate an OBE officiating mechanism.
    It is because Canada is so close to the odd tradition south of the 49th parallel which has a new President choreographing his own state funeral, and the symbolics are so important from nation-engineering perspective. that the lapsus linguae which has Canadian media embrace the notion is too much to ignore.
    Ubris was in Hard Talk-BBC blamed as the western armies fault in Afghanistan; same ubris goes to Lilliputian Canadians dreaming of anything like a state.
    In this process of French influence, let us not forget that Louis XIV first incorporated the notion: L’Etat, c;’est moi.

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