How did Jack get in the "box"? On the container metaphor in the macrocategory of death

The case study of "box", "coffin" and "casket"

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2014

10 Pages



Coffins and caskets have been built for the past several centuries[1]. While they may differ significantly when it comes to design and materials, they do have one universal role, and that is to preserve, honour and celebrate the deceased loved ones. Although the cremation industry is gaining momentum, traditional burial ceremonies are still largely cultivated in most societies around the globe.

The tradition of coffin-based burials became common as late as the 14th century. Before that, cloths or sheets were used or bodies were just placed in special pits. Replacing shrouds with coffins may have been connected with the bubonic plague, which managed to kill 80% of the population in some regions of Europe and had political, demographic, as well as social repercussions. Utilizing coffins was a means of preventing the spread of diseases

In most cases coffins were made of pine or oak covered with a black material or paint. On some occasions the black colour would be replaced with red if the deceased fell in battle, or the colour grey to symbolize humility. In his Dzieje obyczajów w dawnej Polsce Bystroń 1960:102 remarks:

Pisze o tym Stanisław Żółkiewski w testamencie, że gdy na polu bitwy poległ, “miasto aksamitu czarnego, który znaczy żałobę, niech trumna przykryta będzie szkarłatem na znak wylania krwi dla ojczyzny[2].

The 17th century saw the popularization of extravagant and ornamented metal coffins some of which had small glass windows (c.f. Kerrigan 2009). The bodies of rich individuals were dressed in the most impressive raiment and placed in a custom-made coffin. The front was occupied by an oil simulacrum of the deceased that was frequently painted on a silver, copper or tin slab. After the burial procedures came to an end, the coffin portrait was hung on the wall of the church or the family chapel. The coffin was then transported to the church, where a monumental catafalque was awaiting. The place was usually decorated with the so-called ‘castrum doloris’[3], where numerous attributes of death were placed, including human skeletons with bat wings or skulls (c.f. Kerrigan 2009).

The advent of the 21st century saw an immense revolution in the way death and dying was perceived (Aries 2007). Apart from the obvious marketing and proliferation of entertainment value that death brings (action films, games and literature) there was also a growing social acceptance towards the subject in question. Likewise, the funeral industry saw its fair share of revolution, with coffin manufacturers trying extremely hard to satisfy the most demanding clientele. And so one may come across such extreme examples of extravagance as can be found at, advertising a company that offers a wide variety of custom-made coffins for people interested in everything from Scandinavian mythology to the artistic works of Van Gogh. Other companies provide their customers with coffins equipped with air-conditioning, television screens and even iPod docks, so that the deceased could listen on their way into the ‘other side’.

Much like the social aspect of dying, the linguistic one is also impressive in its range and creativity. Language users are constantly trying to both hide and expose the very element of our existence that they fear and treat with reverence. The former intention is frequently fulfilled by means of jargon or euphemization, whereas the latter verges upon the fields of satire, slang or simply pure mockery. In this short work we shall focus only on the metaphorical expressions connected with coffins that operate within the macrocategory of CONTAINER, which (for the purpose of this work only) can be defined as an object for holding or transporting something[4] or as quoted by Macmillan Online Dictionary as something used for storing or holding things, with common containers such as basket, bin, case, chest, container, crate, envelope, mould, packing case and box among others. In order to make this definition more relevant to the idea of this paper, we shall add to it yet another element, and that is an item that serves as a form of enclosure or casing for an object (in our case human remains) that fits in metaphorically within the category of CONTAINER. Such an expanded definition opens up an immense spectrum of lexemes (of various nature) that while not containers per-say can metaphorically be portrayed as such.

Let us now proceed to the lexemes in question. For the purpose of this work, the author uses the symbol êê to indicate the progression of time and subsequent stages of development of the selected items. The cross symbol (†) suggests that a given lexical item is no longer used in this meaning today. The fist lexeme in question is ‘box’ the semantic change of which may be represented by the following graph:



STAGE 1 A case or receptacle usually having a lid (10th – 19th)



STAGE 2 A receptacle or pigeon-hole at a post office (19th – 20th)



STAGE 3 colloq. A gramophone, wireless set, or television set (20th)



STAGE 4 A coffin. slang. (20th)

Out of the whole selected corpus, the word ‘box’ probably has the most convoluted and diversified etymological background, and there are a few reasons for this. First of all, the term itself has at least three attested groups of meaning, namely: a container, a blow (hit), a type of tree. This study, however, will only analyze the first meaning, as it is relevant to the later evaluative change within the contextual use of ‘box’.

Yet again there are some discrepancies among different etymological sources. All lexicographers agree that the etymon of box is the O.E. box (neut. or masc.) meaning ‘a wooden container’ the L.L. buxis or the Gk. pyxis (or L. buxus and Gk. puxos cf. Partridge 2006:316)). Other sources indicate the Ger. büchse (also MHG. buhse, bühse, MDu. busse, bosse, Du. bus, bos (cf. OED [5] )). The L. etymon had numerous variations such as buxis, buxida, buxta, boxta, bosta, bossida, from which the Teutonic forms may have derived.

As far as its cognates, the English box shares its origins with the German büchse, which on rare occasion uses the compound Todes Box to refer to a coffin. The Polish language has no direct cognate of box, yet it uses the word skrzynka (box) or drewniana skrzynia (wooden box/chest) to denote ‘a coffin’ as evidenced by the following quotation provided by Dąbrowska (2009:156); Całe życie płacimy składki ZUS – i co z tego mamy? Głodowe emerytury, a w razie śmierci – na papierowe buty i byle jaką skrzynkę [6].

The first meaning of box, and one that prevailed until today, is a container, frequently with a lid. Originally it also applied to any small receptacle made of any type of material, used to keep medications, ointments and valuables. Later on (around 1700) its meaning was extended to also denote larger cases […] for merchandise and personal possessions, yet if not stated otherwise, always […] understood to be four-sided and of wood (OED 2009). The following OED examples illustrate this meaning.


[1] There has been some debate on the difference between the two. Some suggest that the American specialists prefer the word casket, whereas coffin is more widespread in British English. Another explanation would suggest that ‘casket’ is used predominantly by the funeral industry, making ‘coffin’ a more common, everyday expression. Yet another explanation claims coffins to be more ‘pedestrian’ while caskets are more sophisticated, with rich ornaments and grander in nature. The idea of spending a fortune on burial, encrusting caskets with jewels and precious metals was famously mocked by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American writer who said it was: ‘ a vile modern phrase which compels a person of sense and good taste to shrink more disgustedly than ever before from the idea of being buried at all (1863) (c.f. Ayto 2000). The specialists, however, indicate the obvious difference between the two, with coffins having six sides and caskets having four.

[2] (Translation mine) Stanisław Żółkiewski wrote in his will that if he is to fall in battle ‘instead of the black velvet representing mourning, may the coffin be covered with scarlet colour to symbolize the spilling of my blood for the Motherland.

[3] Latin for ‘Castle of Grief’

[4] Definition from Oxford Online Dictionary 2013.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary (2014)

[6] Translation mine : We spend our whole lives paying the IRS – and what do we get ? Lousy pensions, and in case of death – some money for paper shoes and a potty „box”.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


How did Jack get in the "box"? On the container metaphor in the macrocategory of death
The case study of "box", "coffin" and "casket"
University of Rzeszów  (English Philolohy)
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MA Paweł Migut (Author), 2014, How did Jack get in the "box"? On the container metaphor in the macrocategory of death, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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