Instead of using "Hanging by a thread" in the context of someone walking endlessly in the desert and being barely able to continue, what is a better choice of phrase?

  • 3
    Well, if the guy is hanging by a thread, then he's clearly also at the end of his rope.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 7, 2015 at 12:13
  • 3
    What about dying of thirst? (I think your question could be improved if you made an edit, and explained why you don't like hanging by a thread. Otherwise, this becomes a guessing game as we all try to figure out which direction you'd like to go with this. What's constitutes "better" here? Less trite? More literally accurate? More precarious?)
    – J.R.
    Feb 7, 2015 at 12:37
  • 1
    An engine with practically no fuel left is "running on fumes", this could be extended to the "mortal flesh engine" but may evoke a connotation of drugs use with some, I guess. "Running on willpower alone" maybe? Feb 7, 2015 at 13:30
  • On his last legs ...?
    – Dan
    Feb 7, 2015 at 22:54
  • Good for you for rejecting hanging by a thread. Except where the reference to the Sword of Damocles is fully intended, hanging by a thread is hackneyed, nearly moribund. (And there's a word for you!) Metaphorically, the person could be said to be fading (with each step), faltering, withering, ebbing (too watery?), wasting, languishing, vanishing, and on and on. Alternatively, one might focus on the difficult but determined movement forward toward (inevitable?) extinction: staggering, stumbling, inching, tottering, faltering, reeling on toward a close-by grave in the sand.
    – user193445
    Sep 23, 2016 at 12:55

3 Answers 3


As Lady Galadriel so eloquently stated: The quest [of the Fellowship] stands on the edge of a knife.

  • I don't know, I think that metaphor indicates the quest could go either way with the slightest change of fortune. Whereas the man marooned in the desert is doomed (or at least the odds lean much more in that direction).
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 7, 2015 at 12:17
  • Well, if you recall the moment in the movie, you will see that it the expression is not intended to be neutral, but negative, like in the OP's example :)
    – lennyklb
    Feb 7, 2015 at 12:19
  • Fair enough. +1.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 7, 2015 at 12:21
  • Yes, my take on that scene / usage was that the only "good" way to go is farther along the edge; moving to either side involves a precipitous fall. And the knife isn't exactly helping you stay on its edge, either.
    – Hellion
    Feb 7, 2015 at 14:15

There are loads of common expressions to describe someone whose mortality is "hanging by a thread". Off the top of my head:

Barely clinging to life, Barely holding on, On his/her last legs, Running out of time...

Or, if you're writing fiction, consider describing the actual symptoms that one might experience when suffering and/or dying in the desert rather than simply stating outright that he/she is not doing so well: show; don't tell.

Think about how dry and sandpapery someone's tongue might feel, how each breath made his/her lungs burn, how tired eyes struggled to cope with being blasted by sand and so on.


"Hanging on by the skin of one's teeth" is a biblical reference:

My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20).

The allusion is to narrowness.

  • 1
    Or a little less dramatically, hanging on by his fingernails.
    – Xanne
    Aug 27, 2021 at 8:16

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