What Does Between Life and Death Mean?

Between Life and Death Meaning

Definition: Feeling terribly ill, perhaps even so much that you fear dying; to be in a position where life and death are equally likely.

This idiom is fairly straightforward. If someone is between life and death, he is currently alive but very sick or near to dying.

For example, someone with an illness like cancer might say that he is between life and death, or someone who is injured in a snowboarding crash may say that he is between life and death.

The phrase may also be used dramatically, such as when somebody with a head cold says they feel as if they are between life and death.

Origin of Between Life and Death

Define between life and deathLike many idioms, the exact origin of this phrase is unknown.

One idea is that the phrase might be a take on a matter of life and death, which is the name of a 1946 film.

It is also related to the phrase life-or-death, which functions as an adjective to describe something with high stakes.

Examples of Between Life and Death

Meaning of between life and deathMost often, this phrase is used to describe someone who may die at any moment. The stakes are very high for this person. Perhaps this person has recently had invasive surgery, and the chances of survival are between life and death.

However, it is important to note that many people use this phrase in a jocular, light-hearted manner. After a small event like smashing a finger in a door, someone might say that he is between life and death as a way of overdramatically showing that he was in pain.

More Examples

  • What people do in a few seconds can make the difference between life and death, sometimes their own. –USA Today
  • This all-female a cappella ensemble sings bedside to the sick and dying, providing an intimate musical elixir to people navigating the chasm between life and death. –Orlando Sentinel


The saying between life and death means a matter of grave urgency and importance, perhaps even one where somebody’s life is at risk.