Can you, please, try to explain why dictionaries know "short-lived", but not short-living? e.g. I believe I've heard: "mind the closing doors" in the subway. What's the difference?

2 Answers 2


In most cases where you would use the idiom "short-lived" it wouldn't make logical sense to say 'short living', never mind grammatical.

If something is living, it is still alive, so the length of its life cannot be measured. We say 'short-lived' to describe something that has ended after only a short time, eg "his success was short-lived". You couldn't say about someone currently enjoying success that it is short because it isn't over yet.

We can also say it about something that is known to be short; for example some might plaintively remark that "man's time on earth is short-lived" to mean that in general, humans have relatively short or limited lives. You could describe a species in general as being "short-living" but remember that "short" is always relative, so you have to be clear what you are comparing it to. Many animal species have short lives compared to humans, but humans have short lives compared to certain species that routinely outlive us.

"Mind the closing doors" is a warning to be careful of automatic doors as they are closing, because you could get a limb trapped in them or something. It would make no sense to warn people about closed doors. I suppose someone could walk into a closed door but such a person is unlikely to take note of a warning sign telling them not to, either.

  • But what if a length of life is yet to be measured :) e.g. for a housefly life expectancy is 15-30 days. If we mention that fact in a discussion, than for any given fly which is alive, we know for sure that its life will be short, but the fly is still alive. Would "a short-living insect" sound off then? Commented Jan 23 at 12:11
  • @westandskif Yes, I believe I answered that in my third paragraph. You could say, of the housefly in general, that its life is short-lived. But you're not saying it about a specific, living housefly. Maybe that specific one buzzing round your kitchen will live 33 days.. that's 10% longer than most of its peers. 'Short-lived' describes a relatively short time. You could agree that humans have a short life compared to some types of trees and turtles, but a specific person living to 110 would be considered as having a long life!
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jan 23 at 15:04
  • Also, short-lived is an actual adjective. And so is closing in your example. The opening night was yesterday.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 23 at 17:28
  • @lambie "short-living" is also be an adjective. If you can make a legitimate hyphenated compound it's an adjective. Perhaps you mean its not an idiom. I don't know what your point is about 'closing' - of course it's an adjective, that's the point of this - to explain why the tense is logical in the context.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jan 23 at 18:53
  • @Astralbee - well, it does exist and the OED has one attestation: "Ye know this world is but a shadow, a short-living creature, under the law of time." S. Rutherford, Lett. (1664) 372. Despite that, it seems a bit odd today. I suppose "short-lived" won out in the end. As to why? Merely due to common usage, there doesn't appear to be any real logic behind it.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jan 23 at 22:17

I'm not certain about this answer, but I'll tell what it appears to be:

Often we use the construction "[adjective] [noun]+ed" as one big adjectival phrase, like "short haired" dogs or cats, or "sure-footed" mountain goats. If we were to follow this pattern, it would be "short-lifed." It appears that this really is the etymology of the idiom. From Wiktionary:

From short +‎ lived (“having a life, lifed”), equivalent to short +‎ life +‎ -ed. Compare Middle English short-livi, sort-levi (“short-lived”). ... The pronunciation /ʃɔɹtˈlaɪvd/ (the second syllable rhyming with hived) is more consistent with the etymology (since the term comes from the noun life rather than the verb live), and was formerly more common; however, the pronunciation /ʃɔɹtˈlɪvd/ (the second syllable pronounced as the verb lived) is more common today.

That would make this idiomatic phrase a bit of an outlier, and has a lot to do with the blurriness in etymology and pronunciation between "life," "live" (the verb), and "live" (the adjective). (Not to mention lithe...)

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