I was curious, what is the origin of the phrase "to go west" or "to pass into the west" (as in the sense of to die)?
According to World Wide Words the origin of go west — meaning to die, perish, or disappear is related to the idea of the sunset, as a figurative image of death:
- Go west seems anciently to be connected with the direction of the setting sun, symbolising the end of the day and so figuratively the end of one’s life. Going west has been linked to dying in English since the sixteenth century, though the idea must surely be very much older. It is sometimes said that it refers to the ride westwards that condemned prisoners in London took along Holborn from Newgate Prison to the gibbet at Tyburn, where Marble Arch now stands. My own feeling, not supported by much in the way of evidence, is that this story, even if true, is a particular application of an older viewpoint.
According to the AHD the expression dates back to the 14th century, Go west :
Die, as in He declared he wasn't ready to go west just yet. This expression has been ascribed to a Native American legend that a dying man goes to meet the setting sun.
However, it was first recorded in a poem of the early 1300s: "Women and many a willful man, As wind and water have gone west."
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer)
In Ireland, the expression 'go west' is sometimes used to mean 'broken', as in "the kitchen light bulb has gone west". I was thinking that this might have to do with the displacement of many Irish people to poor big lands of Mayo (in the West of Ireland) during the English invasion, especially in the 17/18 centuries - 'to hell or to Connaught'.
I have always been associated with fighter aircraft and my understanding (with absolutely no documentation) is that, especially in World War I before the time of common air to air radio communications, "to go West" meant to have been been killed in action and thus one (if there were remains) was going home (UK, France, later the US) which was to the West of the main battle areas or if one was missing presumed KIA, then one's spirit: "had gone West"