It was no longer enough for us to spite death with a few extra hours or days of freedom.

I searched the meaning of to spite as a verb, it means:

to intentionally annoy, upset, or hurt someone

but apparently it doesn't fit with the sentence. Maybe, it has another meaning.

Could you please explain it to me?

The fuller text:

Hungry and exhausted, we barely dragged ourselves along, chilled to the bone by the wind blowing through our rags. But those first few hours of freedom had changed us a great deal. The apathetic, worn-out shadows who had made an escape out of sheer hopelessness were now gripped by a fierce will to live. It was no longer enough for us to spite death with a few extra hours or days of freedom. Now we began to believe we had found the road back to life.
Source (translated from Czech original)

Under A Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovaly (Translated by Helen Epstein)

  • I think it's a clunky metaphoric usage (certainly not something non-native speakers should plan to copy). It's true that to cheat death is still widely used, but metaphoric spite = irritate / annoy just sounds to me like something a bad Victorian poet would write. I can only guess that the writer though cheat didn't work for such a short "stay of execution". Commented May 31, 2020 at 17:20
  • 1
    (Or the translator thought it was a good turn of phrase. It may be this particular metaphoric usage is more common in Czech than contemporary English.) Commented May 31, 2020 at 17:26
  • 2
    I disagree with both these comments. Spiting death strikes me as a perfectly appropriate metaphor here. It's like you are saying "Haha Death, you can't catch me!"
    – TonyK
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 19:56

2 Answers 2


It may be more idiomatic in the original language it was translated from, but it still makes sense to me.

Death is often personified, so to spite death would be to mock, cheat, or evade it. As spite is here being used as a verb, there's no reason why one cannot state the means used to carry out the action.

I haven't read the book, but I see it is about survivors of concentration camps, who very much faced death. Your quotation says they had experienced a few hours of freedom, so when it says "it was no longer enough for us to spite death with a few extra hours or days of freedom" it must refer back to that time they had experienced when they felt like they had evaded death. Now the writer is saying they had to do more to survive. The first few hours of freedom were remarkable, but they would no longer expect to evade death on the basis of that, they must do more.

  • Not so much that they "had to do more" to survive, as that they had more opportunity to do more. They were free, and there was finally something more to look forward to. The imperative nature of the passage in bold I see not so much as imposed from outside but more a spiritual response from the inside: "We could not help but expect more from life" as in "we could not help jumping for joy" could be written "We had to jump for joy". Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 7:20

According to Webster's Dictionary, "spite", as a verb, can mean:

to thwart (out of spite).

"In spite of" is an idiomatic expression that means:

in disregard or defiance of.

"To spite death" is a common enough idiomatic expression seen in adventure novels. "Throw caution to the wind" is another idiomatic expression that has a similar meaning, but with a lighter tone.

In the context of the example, you are correct, it doesn't seem to fit. I haven't seen the original source, and I don't speak Czech. It is presumptuous to offer an other translation, but it would make more sense if it was rendered,

"We no longer desired to spite death now that we had a few extra hours or days of freedom."

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