Dicing with Death

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Carlos26 | 20:24 Sat 27th Nov 2004 | Phrases & Sayings
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Hi, first question posted for me, hope I do well.  Anyone know the origins of the mentioned phrase? Is it, as I'm assuming, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge?


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There is, indeed, a scene in Coleridge's poem in which Death and Life-in-Death play dice with Life-in-Death winning control of the ancient mariner. However, the actual phrase, 'dicing with death' itself is much more recent, dating back only to the 1940s, when it was commonly used in motor-racing circles to describe reckless driving.
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but, surely, that's got to have come from somewhere, as has the relatively obscure 'albatross around his neck, relating to someone about to, erm, croak it.

The earliest-recorded use of the phrase 'dicing with death' - which is what you asked about and I answered - appeared in print in 1941. Here's the exact quote:

"Racing motorists usually referred to driving in a race as 'cracking' or 'dicing'...the latter word having been derived from the journalists' habit of writing about their being 'speed demons dicing with death'"

If, instead, you are asking about the three individual words, the verb 'to dice' dates back to the 15th century, 'with' to the 9th and 'death' to the 10th. Despite the age of each word singly, the fact remains that nobody - except, apparently, journalists - wrote the whole phrase 'dicing with death', as such, until the middle of the 20th! The writer referred to the journalists' phrase, but no record has been found of such a phrase in journalistic records.


There's something here that occurs to me... "Dicing with death", aka cutting alongside death.... to cut through trafiic and risking your life and that of others to do it... makes sense, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't another explantion. dice means to throw a die - or a pair of dice - with a view to moving a counter or beating an opponent in some way in a game. This happens in children's games such as Snakes & Ladders and and more adult, casino-type games such as the one I'm sure AnswerBank won't let me write here. (I refer to the 5-letter one that begins with 'cr', ends in 's' and has 'ap' between these!)

Since these are all forms of 'gambling' - innocently or otherwise - the suggestion behind the phrase 'dicing with death' is that the player, for want of a better word, is gambling against a particular opponent, Death. If he wins, he has beaten he's got through the traffic unscathed, for example, despite the rashness of his driving. However, one day he'll probably chance his luck too far and Death will beat him.

That's what the phrase means, but that's not what the questioner asked. He asked about the origins of the phrase and I passed on the oldest recorded instance of the phrase's use. That's its origin...nobody else - other than the anonymous journalists referred to - ever used it before the 20th century. That's where the story ends.

kifaru The context you use in dicing with death, that it is cutting close to death, comes from the culinary term 'to dice' which is to cut into a cube shape,ie.die shaped.

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