English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

There's a famous story about a Marine sergeant at the Battle of Belleau Wood shouting "Come on, you apes. Do you want to live forever?" It's been attributed to several people; a character in Starship Troopers says it; but what does it mean?

  1. "You are acting as if you wish never to die; in fact, you should desire to fight and to die fighting."
  2. "If you fight, your life may be shortened but you will achieve metaphorical immortality -- 'live forever' -- through your valor."
  3. A deliberate ambiguity between (1) and (2).

EDIT: I didn't make something clear. I am not taking a poll here. A sound argument for one alternative or another would be good; a cite would be better; but an opinion is famously like that body part that everyone has but no one else wishes to see or hear about.

share|improve this question
I find it odd that there's so much discussion around this. To me, Do you want…? means (1), and Don't you want…? would mean (2). – Jon Purdy May 29 '11 at 3:18
@RiMMER: I'm not going to play the "native speaker" card here, but I really am sorely tempted. – Jon Purdy May 30 '11 at 1:21
@Jon Purdy: I'm not the one you need to persuade. Actually, nobody is, but if you feel like helping Malvolio with his question, you're free to submit your own answer and have it accepted by others (Native Speakers, the masters of the universe, included). – RiMMER May 30 '11 at 9:48
@RiMMER: I'm not trying to persuade anyone: that would be foolish. I am a descriptivist, though, so I don't think you can be actually wrong so much as just uncommon in your interpretation of a phrase—especially when, in this case, that do/don't distinction in questions is very clearly defined. A native speaker is no "better" than a non-native speaker, but they are more likely to have experienced more of the language as it's used by other native speakers, the people who define the language in the first place. – Jon Purdy May 30 '11 at 18:06
Such as it is, @RiMMER, Jon Purdy is right. That is the literal interpretation of the two phrases. In this case, however, I don't think the literal embodies the intent of the speaker. – zenbike Jul 31 '11 at 15:54

10 Answers 10

The meaning of the utterance itself is (of course) quite clear: he is asking if you do or do not want to have your life go on forever (or as clear as forever or infinity can be to us). The utterance is a rhetorical question, though, which is doubly evident since it has a false premise: every adult knows he can't live forever, and so has no such choice. The issue is not so much the meaning then, but what is the effect intended by the speaker?

One needs to understand the psychological situation of the audience: soldiers facing a dangerous action, who have some idea of the danger and have consequent fear for their lives. They do want to live. But they also do not want to live at any cost; they do not want to live a scurrilous, dishonorable life. (Those that would easily accept dishonor are not listening, perhaps having already deserted.) These are strong and contradictory emotions; soldiers have them swirling through them. We can expect they typically remain unresolved, and so they are in a state of indecision, which in turn causes inaction.

The rhetorical question goes straight to the center of the dilemma: it points out that you will die, and it denigrates the idea that if you just live through this day, you will live forever and not simply die tomorrow. It pushes forward the question of what cost you are willing to bear to buy that time (which may be just one more day). The usual renderings of the question, with Apes, Rascals, Sons-of-bitches, or Dogs, hints at the dishonor that may await those who shirk (as snumpy's answer points out). Note that the appellation is half-comradely, half-insulting, and not a full insult, as using Cowards would be. This shows that the speaker is pointing out that they can fall either way, and need to make a decision as to how they want to live their life.

The question also has a humorous aspect, since it superficially seems to be asking if one wants to live. This appeals to the wider audience for the quote, as well as to soldiers, who often have a sardonic regard for their situation. The humor is reflected in this passage from 1920:

The world is a dangerous place; very few will get out of it alive. During the late war a sergeant called out to some of our boys who were not enthusiastic about going over the top, "Come on, do you want to live forever?" So the great thing for us is not to live forever here, but to live well while we do live.

The humorous yet serious nature of the utterance is suggested in this interpretation by Jonathan Gifford:

It is clear that Frederick did not mean, in the old, classical sense, ‘Let us die a glorious death and become immortal’: the translation from the German (Ihr Racker, wollt ihr ewig leben?), if my schoolboy German is up to the task, is ‘You rascals, would you live eternally?’ That is to say, his rallying call was the remarkably honest, but still inspiring (in a gladiatorial sort of way): ‘We’ve all got to die someday – what’s wrong with today, you slackers?’

share|improve this answer

Well, technically it's ambiguous, but let's do a little research and find out the answer, shall we?

Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph "Dan" Daly is commonly attributed as having yelled, "Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?" to the men in his company prior to charging the Germans during the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I, although Daly claimed himself to have said, "For Christ's sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever?" (source)

Unless this man had a very specific sense of "humour", I doubt he wanted to make the line ambiguous. When on a battlefield, in a war, I really, really believe there's no time for word play and tricks like this, but unfortunately, unless the man explained his saying somewhere, there is no way to determine what he personally meant.

Going on. Beware that the line dates back before Major Joseph Daly. Frederick II of Prussia, who lived from 1712 to 1786, is famous for having said:

Kerls, wollt ihr ewig leben? (source, along with a great discussion over the quote)

Which translates to:

Dogs, would you live forever? (translation source)

He said the line addressing retreating Prussians at the Battle of Kolin in 1757 of which he was the leader. They lost the battle.

Note that would bears the archaic meaning of a present wish, desire, therefore to rewrite the quote to today's English, it would go:

Dogs, do you want to live forever?

So let's ask ourselves: how many possibilities there for what the king may have meant? Only one!

If they retreat, they would live a few more years, of course, but they would definitely not live forever. If they go back into the fight, they die in the battle, but live forever through their valour.

So to conclude this, technically the sentence is ambiguous, but philosophically and considering the situation in which the line was uttered, it bears only one meaning, the meaning marked as 2 in your question.

After what @snumpy has added, I have re-thought the conclusion and I must say the line still remains perfectly ambiguous. It's true that addressing an army as dogs points to the meaning you marked as #1, but logically and philosophically, it should point to the meaning marked as #2. You have to make your own conclusion and see what you want to see.

share|improve this answer
+1 nice answer, but do you have any source for the citation? – Zenon May 29 '11 at 2:01
@Zenon: I have added some sources, hope that helps! – RiMMER May 29 '11 at 2:13
It's definitely not 2. But I'm not sure it's exactly the sentiment of 1 either. It's more like, implying (ironically) that if they don't fight, they could live forever, and then rejecting that idea in a pithy way. Why would you want to live forever? Not want to die fighting, but want to fight at least, and if that meant death, then, so what? We're all going to die sometime why not now? – Sam May 29 '11 at 5:46
I would have translated Kerls as "guys" or "fellows" or "boys" — not dogs (except in the metaphorical sense of "guys"). Beethoven, for example, called Napoleon a Scheisskerl (roughly, shithead). It's also from the same root as housecarl (or huscarl) which referred to the bodyguards of Danish and English kings pre-Norman Conquest. – Robusto Aug 2 '11 at 12:19
@Alain: Yes, he actually ripped the dedication page of the manuscript in a fit of anger after N. had himself crowned. – Robusto Aug 6 '11 at 22:45

The line is obviously dripping with irony and black humor. The intent is clear: of course they want to live forever, who, after all wants to die? However, we find ourselves in this rotten situation, suck it up, go for it, do what you need to do, suppress your basic human urge to run away, and instead, do your duty to your country, your family, your friends and yourself.

It seems typical of the situation that soldiers often find themselves, in: they are in imminent danger of dying, but have to do their duty despite it all. And this line beautifully encapsulates that dichotomy.

As such it is a question very appropriate on this Memorial day weekend, as we in the USA remember the sacrifices our fighting men have made for our liberties.

share|improve this answer

I think the addressing of the audience as Apes (or dogs / sons of bitches as @RiMMER shared) suggests a purposeful degrading of the soldiers that disambiguates the clause that follows to taunting for considering life valuable (thus your first suggestion).

share|improve this answer
+1 for to the point. Most of the other answers make an essay out of what should be a one line answer. – Catskul Aug 5 '11 at 19:02
@Catskul: A one-line answer is good when it’s clearly right, but this example is way more ambiguous, hence the essays. @mgkrebbs’ reading of it as “half-comradely, half-insulting, and not a full insult” rings much more true to me than the idea that it was intended as seriously degrading. – PLL Aug 5 '11 at 21:32
@PLL "but this example is way more ambiguous" Perhaps. And my comment was a bit glib, but these answers (esp. mgkrebbs) read like users more interested in writing an answer than answering. mgkrebbs probably could have gotten the point across in three or four sentences. – Catskul Aug 5 '11 at 21:37

I believe this statement is actually just an ironic restatement of "Are you ready to die?". The sergeant theoretically already knows the answer to this question since they signed up to fight in a war, so he's just trying to remind the soldiers of their vows, in a way that encourages them to fight with gusto. Keep in mind that this is most likely just a story, and the writer was probably just trying to make the original war call more interesting by making it unique.

share|improve this answer
To me at least, it's more, "Are you a bunch of cowards?". A soldier who fought as if he wanted to live forever would be a lousy soldier. – David Schwartz Dec 28 '13 at 6:44

I think the answer is clear; I'm not sure why there is so much discussion (or even essay-length answers) about this.

Short form: "Do you want to live forever?"

Long form: "If we die gloriously in battle, our lives will be remembered forever. Do you want to be immortalized in history?"

share|improve this answer

Other answers have covered a lot of ground that I would in addressing this question (a surprisingly complex one, really), but one thing I would put in is that, in the meaning you're getting at with your option #1, it's not necessarily quite so much that they should prefer to die fighting, it's that, given that one way or another they will die eventually, they should choose to live in the best way they can manage in the meantime, rather than living poorly -- in a cowardly fashion, particularly -- in a vain attempt to live forever.

At one level, it's another way of saying standing around and shrinking back are not going to keep you alive forever, so you may as well give it your best.

I definitely agree that the ambiguity you note is intentional in at least some versions; I'm not sure about the Prussian.

share|improve this answer

I believe the answer is fairly clear and closest to option 1. I'd say he's deriding being concerned about staying alive along the lines of:

"Why won't you jump in the pool? Are you afraid you'll mess up your hair?"


"Are you afraid to break a nail?"

share|improve this answer

I think his point is that a soldier who fought as if he wanted to live forever would be a lousy soldier. He's essentially asking his soldiers if they are a bunch of cowards who fight as if they were afraid to die.

share|improve this answer

It means, "We all die after all, make this moment most glorious of our time".

share|improve this answer

protected by J.R. Dec 28 '13 at 3:51

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.