What Does One Foot in the Grave Mean?

One Foot in the Grave Meaning

Definition: To be very close to death.

People often use this to describe someone who is very sick or old. Someone might also use this phrase to describe another type of dangerous situation that likely will lead to death.

In most cases, however, it refers to someone or something that is on the verge of death.

Origin of One Foot in the Grave

This expression first saw widespread use in the 16th century, where we know it was already being used at the time of its first recorded written use. William Painter’s 1566 the Pallace of Pleasure is the first known use of this phrase.

  • “Takyng paines to visite him, who hath one of his feet alreadie within the graue, and the other stepping after with conueinient speede.”

As you can see, this was written at a time before many English spellings were standardized.

Another early use of the phrase is in Philip Massinger’s and Nathan Field’s  1632 play The Fatall Dowry: A Tragedy:

  • When one foot’s in the graue.

The analogy of this phrase is clear enough. If someone has one of their feet in the grave, the person is not quite dead, but close.

Examples of One Foot in the Grave

define one foot in the graveThe first dialogue shows a brother and sister discussing an older actor.

Luke: Oh, wow! Look at the actor in this movie. I can’t believe he’s still acting. He’s got to be at least 90 years old.

Ella: You’re right. I’m surprised they let him be in the movie.

Luke: Why do you say that? He’s a great actor.

Ella: Maybe he was a great actor, but he seems way too old to act now. Look at him! He’s got one foot in the grave.

Luke: That’s such a mean thing to say! He’s one of my favorite actors, and he’s so talented. Yes, he’s old, but that doesn’t mean he’s dying. He might live for many more years.

Ella: Maybe. But I doubt it.

1 foot in the grave bookThe second example shows two friends talking about a friend of theirs who is in the hospital.

Ray: Would you like to drive over to the hospital with me? Warren isn’t doing so well.

Ricardo: Yeah. Let’s go. Did the doctors give his family any update?

Ray: They implied that he might not last through the night. They tried to do everything that they possibly could to help him, but he just keeps getting worse and worse. Of course, they would never say this directly, but it seems like Warren has one foot in the grave already, and he could pass away at any moment.

Ricardo: Then we’d better go say our goodbyes.

More Examples

This article excerpt is about someone in the rice business who feels doomed because of poor business.

  • “I feel like I have one foot in the grave,” said Joe Crane, BU Grower’s managing partner. –Houston Chronicle

This other example is a quote from a 100-year-old man who is reflecting on life and death.

  • “I used to think that anybody that was 55 years old had one foot in the grave,” Miller said. “Being 100, they say, ‘well how do you feel?’ I say, well I don’t know how a 100-year-old is supposed to feel!” –USA Today

Summary

The idiom one foot in the grave is a way to describe someone that is very old or sick, or is otherwise near death.

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