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Random House Dictionary as well as Merrian-Webster suggest that the common idiomatic expression "do or die" is from late 19th century:

First recorded in 1875-80

The following site suggests it is from a poem dated 1793

The term "do or die" comes from Robert Burns' poem "Robert Bruce's March to Bannockburn" which was a poem about the first War of Scottish Independence.The last stanza of the poem reads:

Lay the proud Usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty's in every blow!

Let us Do or Die!

and also Google Books shows usages from late 18th/early 19th century,

while according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms do or die has a much earlier origin:

  • Exert supreme effort because failure is close at hand, as in Carol was going to set up the computer, do or die. This hyperbolic expression in effect says one will not be deterred by any obstacle. [c. 1600]

So, where does this common saying come from? Was it from a poem composed much earlier than Robert Burns' one?

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The OED puts the date much, much earlier, with these two examples from Scotland:

Than is þar nocht bot do or de.
Thewis Gud Women, 1487

Her is no chos bot owdir do or de.
Actis & Deidis Schir William Wallace, 1488

My translation: Now [there] is no choice but [to] either do or die.

These citations are very close together in date, so I wouldn't be surprised to find an even earlier example.

  • Interesting, a very old saying. – user067531 Feb 7 '18 at 16:57
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Whatever the origin of the saying originally, I believe the saying became common after the publication of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade which begins :

Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards

into the valley of death rode the six hundred.

The quote which became a common saying is

Theirs is not to reason why - theirs is but to do or die.

The Ngram shows an increase in usage of the saying in the 1850s, about the time of the publication of the poem (9th December 1854).

The poem commemorates the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854.

The full poem can be read here.


Although I was born and brought up in Scotland, it was not from the Robert Burn's poem that I became acquainted with the saying but from Tennyson's inspiring words. I heard the poem at home from my Dad in the 1950s and then learned it at school in Glasgow in the 1960s.

Stirring stuff !


  • 1
    Google Books shows that "do or die" was already popular by mid 19th century, so it must have been something earlier than the poem you cite, if you want to focus on what made it a common expression. – user067531 Feb 7 '18 at 16:18
  • @user159691 I have just edited and added the Ngram which shows an increase in usage just after the publication date of Tennyson's poem. – Nigel J Feb 7 '18 at 16:23
  • ok, but sorry if I insist. This is Ngram from 1854 : books.google.com/ngrams/… - Anyway the poem gave its contribution, for sure. – user067531 Feb 7 '18 at 16:26
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    My point is that the saying was already popular before the poem you cite was composed. So your assumption in the opening line "Whatever the origin of the saying originally, I believe the saying became common after the publication of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1854, is not correct, at least from what Ngram shows. – user067531 Feb 7 '18 at 16:31
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    But Tennyson's poem does not use the phrase 'do or die', but rather "do and die" ("Theirs but to do and die"), which is subtly different. It would seem that Tennyson is deliberately working a variation on an already familiar phrase with a heroic ring: his "do and die" seems more ambivalent to me, because to do was to die, in this case. – Jonathan Luke Oct 1 at 20:57

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