Wake Up and Die Right

At an exercise class today, we talked a bit about the murder mystery I’m going to write about the class (assuming I get myself in gear), and then we did warm up exercises while the teacher sorted through her music to find the recording she wanted to play. When she couldn’t find the right DVD, she muttered, “Wake up and die right,” which stopped me in my tracks.

“What did you say?” I asked, not sure I heard correctly. She repeated the phrase, and I laughed. I’d never heard the saying before, and coming as it did right after a discussion about our fictional murder, it seemed even more amusing. And a bit gruesome.

Wake up and die right. Oh, my.

Odd words, phrases, and sayings often stay with me, rattling around in my brain until I can make sense of them. (In fact, just yesterday I railed against the appalling sentiment, “He deserved to die.”) The more I thought about “wake up and die right,” the more it made sense. We die right if at the end, we have no regrets. We die right if we’ve lived life to the fullest and used ourselves up, if we’ve danced and laughed, if we’ve enjoyed the company of those who enrich us, if we feel the sunsets and smell the rain-washed air. (If you live in the desert, of course, that rain-washed air comes so infrequently you better smell it when you can because it might be many months before you get another chance.)

Wake up and die right. Oh, yes.

Apparently, the saying came from World War II. Soldiers who let their attention wander were told to “Wake up and die right” — to pay attention, to fight, to get a grip, to die like a soldier if necessary. The adage migrated to the general population and seems to have been prevalent during the late forties and early fifties, but its use faded as memory of the war years became supplanted by other invasions with other jargons — the Beatles, the Viet Nam “police action,” the drug wars.

Today, more than sixty years after the maxim had been laid to rest, it came to life once again. I suppose in a way, it’s reminding me to just sit down and write the book about the class because, of course, I would regret not having written the story. I just need to wake up and do it so my designated victim can die right.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

5 Responses to “Wake Up and Die Right”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I can’t help wondering if wake up and die right might have come from The Battle of the Bulge. Men in trenches in freezing cold weather with snow all around might well perish if they did fall asleep, and not necessarily do so from a bullet from the enemy. I think I prefer the saying wake up and smell the coffee. Going over the top comes from the First World War. That made it into civilian life. People expected to go into an already bad situation without much chance of resolving it were said to be going over the top.

    I don’t much care for the term police action because those who are killed in a police action may not have their widows get the same benefits as if they were killed in a definite war. The difference? None really when you are going up against an enemy determined to win and kill you at the same time. I believe Vietnam went from police action to war. I think Korea was considered a police action throughout and was only regarded as a war many years later.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I don’t like “police action,” either, hence the quotation marks. It’s possible the phrase could have come from The Battle of the Bulge. It was in common usage in Canada and the United States by the 1940s, and such jargon often hangs around a bit. I’ll do some more research. See if I can find out anything.

      To me, wake up and smell the coffee means something completely different. It always seems a snide remark, telling someone he/she is wrong and exhorting them to see the realities of the situation. But then, what do I know since I don’t like the smell of coffee.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        I LOVE the smell of good coffee and hate the smell of burnt offerings you get with bad coffee. On a cold night there’s nothing like moka which is a mix of hot chocolate and coffee. Throw in a couple of marshmallows for good measure.

  2. K Casey Says:

    My dad used this expression all the time when we were kids. I grew up in the 60s. The explanation you give makes sense. We would sometimes distort the phrase with “wake up and dial right” which made much more sense to us kids. You had dials on the phones then.

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