Posted by: Dutch | December 26, 2009

Fate worse than death

Meaning

Any misfortune that would make life unlivable, especially rape or loss of virginity. The phrase was formally a euphemism for rape.

Origin

This attested to the belief that a dishonoured woman was better off dead. It is still used, but ironically of late. That earlier view was expressed in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1781:

“The matrons and virgins of Rome were exposed to injuries more dreadful, in the apprehension of chastity, than death itself.”

Tarzan and Jane

The current version of the phrase was used in several works from 1810 onward but was probably brought into public use via Edgar Rice Burroughs’ widely read Tarzan of the Apes, 1914:

“[The ape] threw her roughly across his broad, hairy shoulders, and leaped back into the trees, bearing Jane Porter away toward a fate a thousand times worse than death.”

– Our special thanks to Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder

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