One foot in the grave


What's the meaning of the phrase 'One foot in the grave'?

To be near to death.

What's the origin of the phrase 'One foot in the grave'?

The phrase ‘one foot in the grave’ has been current in English since the 17th century. It is rather an antiquated expression but took an upswing in use, in the UK at least, following the success of the BBC sitcom One Foot In The Grave, which was popular throughout the 1990s and starred Richard Wilson as grumpy old man Victor Meldrew.

It is fairly easy to derive the meaning of the phrase as ‘close to death’.

The first example of the expression in print is found in Philip Massinger’s and Nathan Field’s play The Fatall Dowry: A Tragedy, 1632:

When one foot’s in the graue.

17th century listeners would have had a different understanding of this than we do now. ‘Foot’ was then used as a verb meaning ‘trip’ or ‘catch’. To ‘catch by the foot’ was to hold someone, as if in a trap. A figurative expression like ‘one foot in the grave’ would have then been understood to mean ‘trapped by death’ with no possibility of escape.

Other ‘One‘ phrases:

One-hit wonder
One fell swoop – At
One for the road
One over the eight
One sandwich short of a picnic
One small step for man
One stop shop
One swallow doesn’t make a summer

Trend of one foot in the grave in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.