In Chinese, we have the phrase "气若游丝" which, translated literally, means "breath being as weak as a wisp of silk" to describe a dying person.

The characteristics of this Chinese phrase are:

  • It directly describes the weak breath of the person.
  • It indirectly describes the dying state of the person.

In English, I can just say "The person is dying." I've also learned another phrase "on the verge of death". But both of them describe the dying state directly rather than use a physical state (e.g., the weak breath) of the person to describe the dying state.

I also saw a sentence in this article that describes the breath which I think is a good one:

I listened to his final breaths, gasping and fish-like, and I gripped his hand tight enough to feel the last pulsings of his heart.

I'm just curious whether there are any other good ones similar to the example above because I guess not everyone's breath is "gasping and fish-like" when he/she is passing away.

  • 1
    We have the idiomatic usage [He's] on his last gasp, which corresponds pretty closely to what you describe (he's dying). Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:45

1 Answer 1


There isn't a direct parallel, a phrase which both describes the person's breathing and is recognized as an established idiom meaning the person is near death, but there are some relevant idioms around dying:

  • People often reference one's "last breath," or "final" or "dying breath." Technically this refers to the very moment of death, but by extension one might say "he's on his last breath" to say that he is near death.
  • Someone near death is said to be "on their deathbed"

You could of course also describe the person's breathing in any way you want, as the quote does.

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