dicing with death

Previously on this blog, I've discussed whether BrE and AmE are different in their singular for dice. Have a look at that blog post if that's what you're interested in.

This one is about the phrase to dice with death, meaning essentially, to take risks with one's life or safety. It's one of those things that I didn't reali{s/z}e was BrE until another American pointed it out to me. (Apologies if you were that uncredited American—I can no longer find the correspondence.)

The OED says the use of dice to mean 'risk' is especially associated with motor sports (a phrase that itself seems to be more BrE than AmE). It is not about chopping up death into cubes, but about 'gambling with one's life' (a phrasing that can be used in either language). Though Merriam-Webster includes this use of dice with an example from Newsweek, it's nowhere to be seen in the American portion of the GloWBE corpus.

The phrase raised two questions for me:
  • is it dicing with death or dicing with Death?
    I imagined the latter, that it's playing a game of dice with the Grim Reaper. But none of the corpus examples treat death as a proper name, so perhaps I'm alone in that.
  • what's the relationship to dancing with death
Since not a lot of people use dice as an intransitive verb to mean 'to play dice', I was imagining that dance with death might have arisen from a misunderstanding of dice with death—an eggcorn, if you will.  And I think there's some evidence to back that up:


In this Google Books Ngram chart (click on it for details), the blue line shows dicing with death is already in existence in BrE during (BrE) the War. The green line is American use of it, intermingling early on with dancing with death. Dancing with death eventually catches up with dicing in AmE, while also rising in BrE, perhaps getting more currency as people have more distance from the 'risk' use of dice as a verb.

For what it's worth, it's slightly easier to find capital-D Death with dance than with dice, but it's far more common to find it lower-case.

10 comments

  1. BrE has the word ‘dicey’ meaning risky - like walking on a frozen lake, crossing the road in traffic, or some surgical processes.
    Not to be confused with ‘dodgy’ - dubious morally, likely to break down, possibly criminal activity.

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    Replies
    1. Suddenly reminded of the comedian Norman Vaughan who had the cathcp-hrases "swinging" and "dodgy".

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    2. "Dicey" is familiar in the US as well.

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  2. Ronald Cammarata14 February, 2020 20:18

    German has the word Totentanz from medieval times. So at least the idea has been floating around for a long time.

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  3. Nice blog, and cool background with the books!

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  4. Of course, if you're Ingmar Bergman you don't dice with death, you [play] chess with death.

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    Replies
    1. In fact, The Seventh Seal has both chess with Death and (at the very end) dancing with Death.

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  5. I don't know that "dancing with death" needs to be an eggcorn. I think the metaphor works just fine on its own. If anything, I would expect it to be some sort of combination of the senses of "dancing on the edge of a cliff*" and "dicing with death".

    * There are a variety of other "dancing on the edge of a ..." metaphors that have similar senses, and all have close associations with risk.

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  6. I'm an AmE speaker from Florida and I've never heard the phrase "dice with death."

    But what I found interesting is that I immediately recognized the meaning of the phrase. Perhaps that's because I'm familiar with the expression "to throw/toss the dice," meaning to gamble. But certainly using "dice" as a verb is new to me.

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  7. Presumably you've never read Eliot's poem The Journey of the Magi, which includes the line "dicing for pieces of silver".

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The book!

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)