I have seen this phrase being used multiple times, mostly in the written context. But I am unsure what exactly it means to have

Victory in the face of defeat

I am confused between these 2 interpretations

  1. To gain victory even when defeat was close?
  2. To be victorious in some broader sense, in spite of the defeat?


  • You need to provide some examples, with context.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 20:48
  • Consider these two examples. 1. The experimental medication worked for his cancer, and he fought through to his wellness. He found victory in the face of defeat. 2. She worked harder for the next 6 months resulting in a sooner death but she finished the book she always dreamt of. That was her victory in the face of defeat.
    – iammrigank
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 20:59
  • So, how would you interpret those?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:09
  • 1
    My Ngram of "victory from the jaws" and "defeat from the jaws" shows victory well in the lead from 1860 on.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 1:57
  • 1
    Ngram books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Xanne
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 2:03

2 Answers 2


in the face of

just means in the presence of or confronted with and so both of your senses could work and therefore probably are sometimes used. Google seems to think that Christian pastors are the most conspicuous users of the infelicitous phrase and that they use it to mean your second sense, very particularly that religion gives you a true victory in the face of the seeming defeat of death.

Really, the better expression for your first sense is

snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

which implies the very visceral closeness of disaster. Having said that, almost no one says that. What people actually use is its humorously ironic inverse,

snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

which naturally implies that one done f'ed up and scored an own-goal.

  • That's a handy link. Thanks. So my take away is that the 2nd interpretation is valid. I will look for its usage in established texts to confirm.
    – iammrigank
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:21
  • @iammrigank NO. That is not what I said at all. It's how the people on the first result page of Google are using it but that's just how they are using it. The phrase isn't a pat expression, so it could be taken in either sense. You should just figure it out from context or avoid it in your writing.
    – lly
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:24
  • Okay... Either sense then. Or better yet depending on the context. Thank you.
    – iammrigank
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:30
  • Had you entered the Ngram correctly (or at least read the warning message) you'd see that "snatch victory" was more popular than "snatch defeat" in the beginning, and more recently the two have been about equal. And "victory in the face of" hardly ever refers to defeat -- much more often "overwhelming odds" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:53
  • (And your OED link routes to a pay wall.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 21:54

Definition of “snatch victory (from the jaws of defeat)” - English Dictionary

“snatch victory (from the jaws of defeat)” in British English

snatch victory (from the jaws of defeat)

to win at the last moment possible, when it had previously seemed certain that you were going to lose

(Definition of “snatch victory (from the jaws of defeat)” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

The critical aspect of the definition is that defeat was imminent.

In the ironic sense (there's been a lot of word play on this phrase), "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," the team or individual or country has been close to an almost-certain victory, but nevertheless loses.

What you call a second sense--obtain some kind of victory in spite of losing--is not part of either one of these phrases.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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