I have come across the phrase 'not long for this world' in many English novels, but it has always struck me as odd, as if a word or part of the sentence were missing. I visited numerous websites but all seem to focus on what the phrase means (I knew what the phrase meant already from context in the novels), not its structure, in particular the, in my eyes, odd use of 'long for'.

I am not sure if this is the right place to be asking this particular question, but where does 'long for' come from in this sentence? Is it some archaic use or form of 'belong'?

Thanks for any light you can shed on this!

  • 1
    Not going to be in this world much longer. It's not a "longing for" the world, nor is it "belonging to" it, it's a length of time that one will be around. (Yes, "for", in that context, is a little weird, but it's served the idiom well for 200 years.)
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 27, 2016 at 2:38
  • I may probably be wrong but I interpret the phrase slightly differently. "Not long for this world" as in my existence in this world is insignificant when compared to how long the World has been in existence.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Mar 4, 2016 at 11:21
  • @BiscuitBoy Yes, you are wrong: "He is not long for this world." = "He is about to die [and go to the next world, i.e. heaven.]
    – Greybeard
    Mar 13, 2020 at 17:40
  • German belangen, anbelangen may mean "to matter, concern". A difficult cluster, IMHO. I don't agree that belong were a "different beasts", though certainly not the same. Meanwhile, Ger. gelingen means "succeed, be succesful".
    – vectory
    Mar 15, 2020 at 14:51

4 Answers 4


The expression dates at least as far back as the 18th C., and perhaps even earlier. It appears to operate on the trope of long to a span of time.

It's related to the similarly literary he is not long in years (as a way of saying that he is young). To be long is to have an abundance of time.

The preposition for in the expression echoes the somewhat archaic sense of destiny, a sense that persists in the idiom They're in for it now (meaning that trouble - usually punishment - awaits them.). It also works on a simpler level, indicating roughly for the purpose of or usefulness in...

To be not long for this world, then, is to have not many days/hours/moments in store for use in the world of the living.

(To be long, in this sense, has little to do with belonging, which entered the language via the OE gelaeng (to accompany, be at hand). Long, meanwhile, comes from OE longe and shares etymological DNA with German and Dutch lang.

The modern pronunciations sound similar, but they're different beasts.)

  • I did not come across any reference to this but many thanks for the etymology there - I guess this answers any questions I had about this particular phrase!
    – Terah
    Feb 27, 2016 at 1:33

According to Online Etymology Dictionary, "to be not long for this world" which means soon to die is from 1714:

The adverb is from Old English lange, longe, from the adjective. No longer "not as formerly" is from c. 1300; to be not long for this world "soon to die" is from 1714.

In "be not long for this word", be long means:

Take a long time to happen or arrive: 'sit down, tea won't be long'

As the above example shows, it is usually used in a negative sentence.


Since idioms have a meaning unrelated to the words that make them up, they don't always follow grammar rules. What I think is throwing you off here is word inversion. We sometimes see this in Shakespeare, poetry, or archaic language- "him I hit" instead of "I hit him."

"He's not LONG FOR this world" simply means "He won't remain in this world FOR LONG." It's just been shuffled a bit.

  • Whoa. I'd say that '[be] [not] long for something' and 'for [a] long [time]' have very different origins. Mar 13, 2020 at 17:10

I think for is the key word here. It's intended to mean "in consideration of." The phrase pretty much means that one will not be alive for long. So, "Not long for this world" is meaning to state a limited time in consideration of this state of existence.


  • Thanks for the reply, Hill. That was actually one of the sites I visited. Unfortunately, it just explains what the phrase means (and I already knew what it meant, it just remains odd-sounding to me - I will update the question to reflect this), and des does not actually explain the 'long for', or origin of the phrase.
    – Terah
    Feb 27, 2016 at 0:26
  • I don't know... I think the statement makes sense. Maybe it just sounds funny to you? :)
    – Christine
    Feb 27, 2016 at 0:27
  • Quite possibly, though I wouldn't say that it doesn't make sense to me, it's just that it seems to deviate from grammar rules as I know them, and I'm really looking to understand where the 'long for' comes from, how it fits in that particular sentence, especially because 'long' and 'long for' seem to have no relation to dying or ending (based on the dictionaries I've checked), except for in this phrase.
    – Terah
    Feb 27, 2016 at 0:34

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