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What Does It Mean to "Cheat Death"?

By Kelly Ferguson
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase "cheat death" is an English language idiom. To cheat death means to avoid death even when death seems very likely or inescapable in the current situation. It is also used when someone has avoided a terrible accident or situation altogether that would very likely have been fatal to that person if he or she had been involved.

One would be said to have cheated death if he or she recovered from a terminal illness or life-threatening injury, survived a fall from a great height, or survived some other situation where death was nearly certain. Even if the individual was not in a life-threatening situation, but instead just barely avoided one, it can be said that he or she was able to cheat death. For example, if a passenger plane crashes, the passenger who stayed home and missed the flight due to a stomach flu bug has cheated death.

There are several interpretations of this idiom and speculations about its origin in popular culture. One notable example includes the famous situation where an individual is able to cheat at a game, usually chess or another board game, with the Grim Reaper, sometimes referred to as "Death," in order to win back his or her life and escape otherwise inevitable death. Another possible interpretation of the origin of this idiom is again in reference to the Grim Reaper. In this case, the Grim Reaper is coming to collect a person at the moment of his or her death, but instead that individual closely avoids dying. This "cheats Death" out of his expected prize.

While it is technically incorrect to use this idiom to describe an individual who has not closely escaped dying, the phrase is sometimes used to emphasize the danger of a situation. This can occur with or without the use of sarcasm or other situations when the speaker's words are not meant to be taken literally. For example, an individual living in a large, heavily populated city might sarcastically exclaim that he or she has been able to cheat death by successfully making the drive home through rush hour traffic. In this case, the interpretation should not be literal in the sense that the individual did not likely almost die, but instead as a way of pointing out how unsafe or threatening the surrounding environment seemed to that person.

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