I am aware of the dictionary definition of the word "immortal": (source)

Or in words:

living forever; never dying or decaying

However, that does not directly imply "can't be destroyed", as far as I can see. My logic (which might be wrong!) tells me that someone might live forever by not aging or ever being sick, i.e. never die of natural cause but still, can be killed by unnatural causes.

This logic is supported by numerous mythology related films I've watched over the years, where gods of all kinds (and a God should be immortal, right?) are killed and destroyed, e.g. it's even mentioned in this question on a sister site on SE.

So my question is: can the word "immortal" in plain speech or writing, be used to describe something that still can be killed or destroyed? If not, how do you explain this inconsistency, language-wise?

  • 8
    Often times immortal means you can live forever but can be killed. Mar 22, 2016 at 15:50
  • @Sam two answers so far claim otherwise, one using definitions from various dictionaries. You have any source for the "often times"? :) Mar 22, 2016 at 15:58
  • 3
    The concept of immortality is very confusing because we can't see that in our real world, every living being can die. The deep question here is will they die?. Mar 22, 2016 at 16:27
  • 2
    I have read a great deal of fantasy literature that uses "immortal" in this fashion. Lord of the Rings is a prominent example.
    – Kenny
    Mar 22, 2016 at 16:56
  • 1
    The Christian god is referred to as "eternal" rather than "immortal" for this very reason. Mar 23, 2016 at 3:06

7 Answers 7


Yes, and that's in fact what "immortal" mostly has meant.

The etymology of the word "immortal" reveals

late 14c., "deathless," from Latin immortalis "deathless, undying" (of gods), "imperishable, endless" (of fame, love, work, etc.), from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" ( . . . ) + mortalis "mortal" ( . . . ). In reference to fame, literature, etc., "unceasing, destined to endure forever, never to be forgotten, lasting a long time," attested from early 15c. (also in classical Latin). As a noun, "an immortal being," from 1680s.

The meaning of the word "dead" itself is

dead (dĕd)

  1. Having lost life; no longer alive. – Free Dictionary

When we try to compare the meaning according to the definitions of related words, we deduce that you can't. However, irregardless of antonyms and synonyms, with regards to usage, a word might have a slight meaning difference to what is implied.

Many fictitious species are said to be immortal if they cannot die of old age, even though they can be killed through other means, such as injury. – Immortality in fiction, Wikipedia

The controversy lies in the fact that being killed also results in someone's death, but someone may die due to senescence, and "not by an external force".

Being killed has always been undesirable, but it has not mainly been what humans dreamed of avoiding. Escape from the inevitable death caused by old age, however, has been the subject of much of the fiction in human history. That there are many immortal Greek figures that are kill-able, but do not die of senescence, proves this.

When you want to talk about something fictitious, you decide what it means. So you can define immortality the way you want. So you may define your legendary creature as one that doesn't even die due to injuries etc. Or, you could take a look at nature.

The closest nature has to immortality is the doesn't-die-by-senescence version: Biological immortality has gained recent interest among researchers. See also a question about Immortal organisms on biology.SE.

Bottom line is, you can. The implied meaning has usually been very close to what you think. Vampires have sometimes been absolute im-mortals, sometimes beheading killed them, and sometimes silver bullets.

  • Thanks, the best answer here so far, without a doubt, digging things from the past, explaining every step. Mar 22, 2016 at 18:59
  • Thanks @James, I was thinking something and writing another.
    – M.A.R.
    Mar 23, 2016 at 7:18
  • 1
    If you need the stronger implication of not able to be destroyed even by violence or old age, consider indestructible (from destruere - to destroy) or invincible (from vincere - to win).
    – CompuChip
    Mar 23, 2016 at 9:21
  • 1
    @CompuChip Immortal and invincible are often used separately. An immortal being will live forever but can be killed, whereas an invincible being cannot be killed but will eventually die of old age or disease.
    – Yay295
    Mar 23, 2016 at 16:39
  • You now have 5,742 on both Chem and ELL. Mar 24, 2017 at 21:16

Let's take for example a being in the real world.


Image By Coveredinsevindust at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

This is the Hydra. It belongs to the Cnidaria phylum and its cells are in constant renewal process, so that it can cure very fastly from injuries (Deadpool-much?) and to reproduce asexually. This also gives it the ability to renew its body time and again, making it biologically immortal. However, if a predator eats it or even if the injury is too serious for it to recompose, it can die, thus, not by natural means.

So I guess you can use immortal to talk about beings that can't naturally die, but yet can be destroyed by an enemy.

  • Thanks, still a guess but better than my own so far. :) Mar 22, 2016 at 15:27
  • You may also want to put a link on Deadpool that explains who the character is for the folks that aren't comic book/superhero movie fans. I know it seems impossible that anyone escaped the media barrage for the new movie, but 10 years from now, things may be different and folks will need a history lesson.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 22, 2016 at 17:04
  • 1
    @ColleenV There's a movie about Deadpool? *mind blown*
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 22, 2016 at 17:09
  • @wizzwizz4 Not only that - it is freaking awesome, but it is only for grown-ups. You can't exactly make Deadpool PG-rated. Yes, I am a Deadpool fan if you haven't looked closely at my profile image. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadpool_(film)
    – ColleenV
    Mar 22, 2016 at 17:12
  • "This is the Hydra". No, this is the Hydra.
    – nnnnnn
    Jun 5, 2016 at 15:06

The basic meaning of immortal, by etymology and usage, is not subject to death.

But people decide how words are used and basic, etymological meanings can be transferred to new situations and pick up new meanings and usages.

The "dictionary definitions" (from the Oxford English Dictionary OED) of immortal include:

A. adjective:
1 a. Not mortal; not liable or subject to death; deathless, undying; living for ever.

b (transferred meaning) Pertaining to immortal beings or immortality; heavenly, divine.

2 a. In wider sense: Not liable to perish or decay; everlasting, imperishable, unfading, incorruptible.

b. special usage. Of fame, or of famous works or their authors: Lasting through an unlimited succession of ages; that will not fade from the memory of men; remembered or celebrated through all time.

B. noun

1. An immortal being; one not subject to death. In plural, especially as a title for the gods of classical mythology.

I have included all but obsolete or repetitious information.

The OED, as good dictionaries do, describes usage; it does not prescribe usage.

I am not an avid follower of either vampires, zombies (not even those near Longbourn, Hertfordshire) or the like or of Greek and Roman gods. So I have to say, while acknowledging the basic meaning of immortal, people are free to use the word "as they like."

It is also the case that such usage merges into beliefs about death, the place of the dead, the so-called undead, life after death, the state or activity of the body and soul after death, and basically into metaphysics.

What the preternatural and the gods do, and what words are used to describe them, are up to speakers of the language. A god could, presumably, die (submit to death or 'undergo destruction') voluntarily–which is what Christianity teaches regarding the divine man Jesus the Christ.

  • 2
    No, not period. A word's usage dictates some of its implications, how crudely that might be.
    – M.A.R.
    Mar 22, 2016 at 19:39

Immortal = lives forever but can be killed. Invincible = cannot be killed. To me mortal holds the same meaning as immortal in the sense that it is something that can be killed, but defined by a lifespan, immortal being the opposite, by not having that lifespan. But this is Just my opinion / understanding and not as comprehensive as the main answer.

  • Yes, that is what the question says.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 23, 2016 at 11:56

In Wil McCarthy's "Queendom of Sol" series, the term "immorbid" is used to describe people who cannot die from disease or old age, but can be killed.

  • Can you give any reference? Google doesn't really find anything with that word. While I believe you of course, it might be a word unique to that single movie. Mar 23, 2016 at 18:37
  • @ShadowWizard It's a series of four books, not a movie, and the reference is given in the Wikipedia link I provided. I'm not aware of the word being used elsewhere, no.
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 23, 2016 at 18:39

I think you can't.

Cambridge dictionary says:

living or ​lasting for ​ever

So if a being can be killed, it is not everlasting, meaning that it is not immortal.

Merriam Webster says something similar:

:not capable of dying : living forever

:exempt from death

Likewise, if a being can be killed, it is capable of dying, and is not exempt from death. Hence it is not immortal.

Take a look at this etymology too. It too says immortal means "deathless". Similar explanation goes for this one too.

  • 2
    Thanks, but still, this doesn't explain how gods are killed in Greek and Egyptian mythology. Mar 22, 2016 at 15:51
  • @ShadowWizard That means those gods are not immortal, as far as the meaning of the word "immortal" is concerned. And like you said, "a God should immortal" (and you missed a "be" there ;) ), a being that dies is not the God. Mar 22, 2016 at 16:18
  • But it's in the definition itself, at least the one Google serves - see under "noun" in the screenshot I posted: "especially a god of ancient Greece or Rome." Mar 22, 2016 at 16:20
  • 6
    There are so many instances of immortal being used in mythology for beings that are not indestructible that it is hard to accept such a literal interpretation of immortal. Are vampires immortal? They can not die, because they are already dead (in some mythologies). They can be destroyed in most of those mythologies though. I don't think it is as cut an dried as looking at the definition and drawing a conclusion. I think we need to look at how the word is actually used.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 22, 2016 at 16:54
  • 1
    "there is no such being ... so there shouldn't be any term for that." - You can't be serious. If there shouldn't be terms for beings that aren't real then I guess I need to go through my dictionary and cross out the many, many such terms that already exist.
    – nnnnnn
    Jun 6, 2016 at 2:52

No they can't be called as immortal, but they can be called as nigh-immortal, because immortal describes those who can't experience death, and nigh-immortal means those who can only be killed by the supreme being and not by any others

  • 3
    Please edit to include an explanation of why this is correct; answers without explanation do not teach the patterns of the language well. Mar 22, 2016 at 16:35
  • Thank you for making the effort to improve your answer, but this is still really difficult for someone who isn't fluent in English to understand. Do you have an references, like a dictionary definition for "nigh immortal", that can help support your answer?
    – ColleenV
    Mar 22, 2016 at 16:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .