If someone or something is described as larger than life, it means that they have characteristics which are impressive or outsized compared with normal human beings. This phrase is an English idiom and is often reserved for fictional characters that are imbued by their creators with almost superhuman qualities. It can also be used as a kind of compliment or tribute for an actual human being with an extraordinary personality or some other distinguishing feature that sets him or her apart from others. The phrase gets its power from its use of exaggeration and figurative license, since it would be impossible to actually measure the size of life.
On certain occasions, speakers of English use words or phrases which have meanings that might not be clear to someone who hasn’t heard the or only knows the literal definitions of the words. That is because such a construction is known as an idiom, which takes its meaning not from how its words are defined but rather from how it has evolved within the culture. One idiomatic expression used to describe someone with outsized characteristics is the phrase “larger than life.”
It is relatively common for this phrase to be uttered in reference to fictional characters. Such characters need not have to be entirely realistic, and, as such, their creators often give them assets or characteristics which actual living persons would not have. Mythological heroes are emblematic of these superior beings that seem to dwarf, both literally and figuratively, normal people. As an example, consider the sentence, “Hercules’ labors were certainly larger than life.”
When this phrase is used to describe an actual human being, it is certainly a lofty tribute. As a result, this phrase can often pop up in obituaries or eulogies for those who have passed away. It can also be used as a testimonial of sorts to someone who is still alive and is impressive enough in some manner to warrant its use. For example, someone might say, “He is so larger than life that it’s hard to imagine him even getting sick.”
The use of exaggeration is what gives this phrase its particular power. Especially when it is used in reference to an actual person, there can hardly be a greater compliment than to call someone “larger than life.” That is why it is usually reserved for only the most noteworthy personalities, or else its impact would be somewhat lessened.