I learned this is an ancient technique of torture originating from imperial China. But nowadays a lot of articles and blogs use this proverbial expression. I want to know:

  1. What does it mean in a subtle way? I get that it has something to do with the slow creeping death of a system or so.
  2. Some examples in that context.
  • 1
    You want to know what it means when it's used in a modern context and not what the original literal meaning was? Oct 12, 2021 at 20:15
  • @KillingTime Yes I want to know the modern context. The etymology of the proverb is not necessary and somewhat known to me.
    – banikr
    Oct 12, 2021 at 21:00
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    @YosefBaskin so it can be done by ourselves to us or by opposition, enemy or adversaries slyly?
    – banikr
    Oct 12, 2021 at 21:02
  • 5
    You only need to see wiki's entry: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. This was, as far as we know, a real form of execution, centuries; and not confined to China. even in early modern England treason was punished by hanging, drawing and quartering. The modern use can be found online, as you see.
    – Tuffy
    Oct 12, 2021 at 23:33

4 Answers 4


It should be understood that in modern English this is almost always used in a metaphorical sense, and hardly ever refers to a live person or animal.

Rather, the reference is typically to a company or organization of some sort, a body of laws, a government, or perhaps a social group.

The implication is that the entity referred to did not meet its demise due to a small number of serious injuries, but rather to many small actions which slowly deprived the entity of its coherence, until it essentially disintegrated.

  • To offer examples, I've read it in the context of: - a politician whose decline in popularity can't be attributed to one scandal, but rather a long series of unrelated minor gaffes - a business that failed (or stock price plummeted) because of, again, many disparate factors (lawsuits, product reviews, competition, economic change)
    – Sam
    Oct 13, 2021 at 14:10
  • I think the focus on an organization here is completely misplaced. It could be an organization, a plan, a career, almost anything that can “die” in any kind of metaphorical sense can be said to have died “a death by a thousand cuts.”
    – KRyan
    Oct 13, 2021 at 22:00
  • "...the reference is typically to a company or organization of some sort, a body of laws, a government, or perhaps a social group." It's even more broad than that - you can apply it to almost any situation of slow, sustained attrition.
    – J...
    Oct 14, 2021 at 12:54

This proverb "The Death of a Thousand Cuts" is somewhat analogous to another - "The Straw that Broke The Camel's Back".

Both are used in relation to the cause of some undesirable situation. It means that the situation or problem was caused not by any single significant event, but the cumulative effect of lots of very minor events.

In the case of the Camel, it refers in particular to the most recent event which was the final event, immediately before the problem or situation happened - "The Last Straw".

The modern use of these proverbs have nothing to do with torture (or camels).

  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingchi Oct 13, 2021 at 17:24
  • See also "the last nail in the coffin" Oct 13, 2021 at 19:26
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    Notably, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” doesn’t say that none of the events were large—just that the final one was not. If one were to barely survive a major crisis, and then fall to a minor one before one could recover from the major one, the minor crisis would still be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” but the overall situation would not be “a death by a thousand cuts.” Still, related and a worthwhile comparison; +1. I just think highlighting that distinction would make a strong answer stronger still.
    – KRyan
    Oct 13, 2021 at 22:04
  • See also "The last drop in the bucket". Or just "The last drop". The bucket isn't always mentioned.
    – Tonny
    Oct 13, 2021 at 22:09
  • @Kingsley Is it by or of? First of all, I somewhat agree with KRyan that camel one is not exactly similar to 'death by a thousand cuts'. There is another proverb in my native tongue something like, 'cutting your feet in rotten snail' - means you harmed yourself by not paying attention to something trivial and could be easily managed. But definitely your put made the context clear. thanks
    – banikr
    Oct 13, 2021 at 22:09

The term is often used to contrast with the idea that there is a particular, or a few particular, identifiable causes. Rather, there is a large number of events, each of which when viewed on its own can't explain what happened. Each individual cause doesn't look like a cause for concern by itself, and fixing any one thing wouldn't have prevented it. It's only all of them together that explain it.

  • 3
    I know of a variant. There was a court case in London where a woman was suing someone for defamation. He had alleged, on a number of occasions, that she had committed adultery with various different men. Her counsel explained that it was the cumulative effect of the accusations which constituted the complaint. The judge, wishing to be helpful, said "You mean the death by a thousand pricks?", instantly (and too late) realising what he had said. The court dissolved into laughter (including the plaintiff) and the judge had to adjourn for 15 minutes for general composure to be re-established. Oct 13, 2021 at 12:22
  • I feel that this is a better answer than various others, because it specifically highlights the insignificance of each individual cause, with it only being the cumulative effect causing the problem in question. Oct 13, 2021 at 20:27

The phrase is more used in the sense of something that lapsed because of many smaller distinct reductions or losses over time, from various different causes.

For example

  • A public service that gradually ceased being able to deliver some service because of various political changes and budget reductions over the years
  • A company that failed, industry that shrank a lot, or a project shut down, due to the cumulative effect of various management failures, changes, market changes, adverse customer feedback, etc

Death By a Thousand Cuts': Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef - Blames climate change, the countrys booming extraction industry, the person given the role of protecting the reef not actually liking it very much, storms and floods that support coral-eating starfish, ..... and suggests all of these, piled onto each other, together (not just one or two) have critically reduced the ability of the reef to survive and recover from damage.

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