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What's the deal with this idiom? I know what it means, but cannot wrap my head around its grammar structure. The sentence structure of

"Never say die"

looks like that of

"Never admit defeat"

but it does not make the same grammatical+semantical sense.

Is it an archaic use? Is it a contraction of a longer phrase? Was it originally misspoken by someone of note and survived memetically? What are its roots?

Edit: Well, the comments made me realize that I worded my question poorly. I'm not saying I think this phrase is ungrammatical. I'm asking how the heck "saying 'die'" came to mean what it means.

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I believe that, apart from some obvious punctuation, this is not grammatically incorrect. Never say, “die”. –  Mr Lister Sep 25 '12 at 11:16
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@Ishmaeel Please identify the grammatical problem you see in the phrase. –  MετάEd Sep 25 '12 at 11:27
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@MrLister I've never seen the phrase punctuated any differently from how the OP presented it (that is, none at all). –  Andrew Leach Sep 25 '12 at 12:07
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@Ishmaeel ehm, if he was still alive, saying "I'm dead" technically wouldn't be correct. And if he was dead, he wouldn't be able to say it. –  Mr Lister Sep 25 '12 at 12:26
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With the acceptability of reduced that-clauses, report structures are permitted without the that: Never say [that] you're beaten. Never admit you're defeated. This is productive: Never wish a vagabond "Merry Christmas." Never wish a vagabond (a) merry Christmas. Never say hello to a stranger carrying a sub-machine gun. However, the frozen expression Never say die , as the fine answers say, predates this trend - possibly even started it. The closest productive usage may be Never say Never Again . –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 25 '12 at 13:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The expression "never say die" has been around since at least the early 1800s, but I think OP is attempting to over-analyse the grammar.

It just means don't use the word "die" (as in "We're all going to die!") because that would imply you've given up hope, which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's much the same as "Where there's life there's hope"

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One vote for "contraction." Thanks. –  Ishmaeel Sep 25 '12 at 13:29

According to Concise Oxford English Dictionary, one says “never say die … to encourage someone not to give up hope”.

It functions literally as a reply to a statement such as “we are all going to die”, expressing hopelessness in the face of a deadly situation.

It is also used idiomatically as a reply to similar statements of hopelessness not containing the word die, or when the speaker anticipates such a statement and wants to forestall it, or when the speaker is struggling with feelings of hopelessness and wants to banish them.

The earliest published example I found is from “The-Man-of-War’s-Man, Chapter XVI” (evidently part of a novel serialization) printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, Volume 18 (1825):

Cheer up then, and never say die, for the devil a morsel of good it will do.

To uncover more examples, you can use the Google Ngram Viewer: search for [ never say die,Never say die ]; click through the various date ranges beneath the chart to view the source texts using Google Book Search.

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Judging from that one page, the text is full of archaic forms and informal speech. Some lines contain a verse-like quality. So this one seems to count as a vote for "deliberate misuse with artistic license in younger days," yes? –  Ishmaeel Sep 25 '12 at 13:20
    
@Ishmaeel Not sure what you are asking. Maybe you can answer your own question by looking at more examples. Try the Google Ngram Viewer: search for [ Never say die, never say die ] and set your date brackets for 1800 to 1900. –  MετάEd Sep 25 '12 at 15:45

I agree that it is a strange construction. So I thought maybe searching for why you might use the phrase "say die" (instead of "never say die") might shed some light on the origin of the phrase. The earliest publication I could find, in which the phrase "say die" was included, is a play called, "The Faithful Shepherd." The play was published in 1590, written in Italian by Giovanni Battista Guarini. The English translation wasn't published until 1647. In a 1736 edition of a book entitled The faithful shepherd: A pastoral tragi-comedy, written in Italian by the celebrated Signor Baptista Guarini, there are these lines (pages 102 and 103):

"Let those fair amiable Eyes release

My Life, now bitter, which once made it sweet;

And those bright Stars, which my Love's Torches li't,

Light too my Funeral Tapers, and fore-run,

As once my rising, now my setting Sun.

But thou more hard than 'ere thou wert before,

Feel'st yet no Spark of Pity, but art more

Deaf to my Pray'rs. Must I then talk alone?

Wretch that I am, discourse I to a Stone!

Say die, at least, if nothing else thou' It say,

And thou shalt see me die..."

Within the next century, for whatever reason, the phrase "Never say die." becomes quite common. (I'm not saying it's a result of the play, by any means, in case anyone mistakenly thinks I'm implying that.) MetaEd mentions one citation in his answer, but there are many citations from the 1800s in which the phrase is used, including a flowery poem attributed to J.F. Waller, reprinted in Oddfellows' magazine, Vol. 13, 1881, page 91:

Never say die—never say die;

Life's worth the living, if we only try;

The hand and the brain

Were not given in vain.

We've a battle to gain,

And so—never say die.

Never say die—never say die;

If earnings be low and if living be high,

'Tis reason the more

Not to faint or give o'er,

Better days are in store,

And so—never say die.

Never say die—never say die—

When night is at darkest the morning is nigh;

Whether far off or near,

In God's time will appear

Some blessing to cheer,

And so never say die.

Never say die—never say die;

The soul that is steadfast may fortune defy;

In labour and art

Let the hand and the heart

Each do its own part,

And so—never say die.

Never say die—never say die;

When cowards despair, be this our reply—

All that's noble and human

In constant and true man,

In brave patient woman,

Cries—never say die.

Never say die—never say die;

Life is God's gift that we may not lay by;

Whatever befall,

'Tis the duty of all'

Till he gives the call

To say—never say die.

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I don't think the usage in the play has anything to do with this phrase. There, it is simply used as an imperative: "Say die" = "ask me to die (which I will)". But the poem certainly looks like it could boost an ordinary phrase into idiomhood. So one vote for "irregular use with poetic license?" Thanks. –  Ishmaeel Sep 25 '12 at 14:21

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