matter of life and death, a

Idioms & Phrases

matter of life and death, a

A very urgent issue, situation, or circumstance. This expression can be used either literally, as in She told the doctor to hurry as it was a matter of life and death, or hyperbolically, as in Don't worry about finishing on timeit's hardly a matter of life and death. First recorded in 1849, it alludes to such urgency that someone's life depends on it. Although a matter of life or death would make more sense, it is rarely put that way.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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