the die is cast

Classification: English – hidden – citational

Spotted in the wild:

  • Unlike in a machine shop, where a part being machined can be checked for the dimensions during the process and corrected until the required results (dimensions) are obtained, in an iron foundry, metal derives its properties during cooling, and measuring and making changes during this period is not possible. Thus, once the metal is poured into the mould, the die is cast, literally! (Industrial Heating, Oct 01, 2002)
  • Mr. Pendlebury just happens to operate a modest die casting business, one whose specialty is producing paperweights, one perfectly suited for Holland’s needs. Soon the die is cast (so to speak), and the pieces are in place, but, as everyone knows, even the best-laid plans are subject to disaster once in the implementation stage as the human element is always the most unpredictable. (Amazon customer review, May 11, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

Arnold Zwicky quotes an e-mail from Keith Ivey:

> When I first heard the phrase “the die is cast”, I thought it meant that a mold for stamping out coins (for example) had already been produced from molten metal and thus set and could not be changed. I later learned that it referred to throwing a gaming cube. Apparently I’m not alone in having had this misapprehension.

He quotes a web site, supplied by Keith Ivey, too, on which someone states the same conviction about the expression’s origin and meaning:

> Perhaps you have heard the phrase ‘the die is cast’ or ‘the die has been cast’. This has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mold (die) which has been cast (made).
> Once the mold is made, everything which comes from it, will have the shape of the mold. ‘The die is cast’ thus states that a pattern has been laid down, and thus subsequent events will conform to the pattern. This phrase lends itself to assumptions about the future being predictable, once patterns are seen in the present.

It is easy to find other writers being unsure about this point:

> The Phrase Finder lists the origin of ‘The die has been cast’ as: ‘The die here is a dice. Julius Caesar is supposed to have said this when crossing the Rubicon.’
> However, my understanding was that ‘die’ in this case refers to the die used for forming material, and that ‘cast’ here does not mean ‘throw’ but rather ‘to form (molten metal etc.) into a particular shape by pouring into a mold’. So basically once the metal has been poured into the die it will set pretty quickly, and the shape (outcome) will be fixed. (link)

“Hidden” eggcorns are, in their most basic form, reanalyses of the meaning of a word or expression without any change in spelling. This lack of orthographic evidence makes it harder to find indisputable examples. It is quite possible that the authors of the two occurrences that are listed above were aware of the origin of the idiom and just decided to play on the words: we can’t know what they thought. It is, on the other hand, clear that, given the amount of uncertainty about the expression’s origin, genuine hidden eggcorn examples of _the die is cast_ must be out there.

See also _the dye is cast_.

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/10/10 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Rod Williams , 2005/10/11 at 2:00 am

    The phrase is a translation of what Suetonius quoted Julius Caesar saying when he crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, “alia iacta est.” It’s been way too long since my last Latin class, but I do recall my teacher explaining that “alia” was a gaming cube similar to what we would call a die (singular of dice). “Iacta est” means “has been thrown.” It’s got nothing to do with molds.

  2. 2

    Commentary by Chris Waigl , 2005/10/11 at 2:09 am

    “Alea iacta est”, in fact. Note that the Eggcorn Database is about popular, sporadic reinterpretations of words or idioms. We don’t claim it has anything to do with moulds. We just document the fact that a certain number of English speakers do. The very fact that this entry appears here indicates that the explanation is non-standard. Or in this case, historically inaccurate.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Nigel Pond , 2005/10/11 at 9:32 pm

    “Cast” can be synonymous with “thrown” as in “cast the first stone”, so the “traditional” translation of the expression as “the die is cast” is absolutely correct, it just has nothing to do with metal casting/moulding.

  4. 4

    Commentary by Jim McCrudden , 2005/11/07 at 7:52 pm

    Die is cast.
    It has to be a die as in gaming cube. A die is a tool for shaping other tools. You will find its functions as in ‘tap and die’. A tap cuts internal threads in a nut, a die cuts external threads in a bolt.
    The point is that a tool with this function was not cast (as in metal poured into a mold) it had to be machined, casting would never be precise enough or strong enough. Think of cast iron as distinct from wrought iron. Cast iron is too brittle. I have frequently heard tradesmen curse a broken part of a tool as ‘bloody cast shit’

  5. 5

    Commentary by Marnen Laibow-Koser , 2006/07/20 at 6:55 pm

    FWIW, it is possible that at least the first two examples in this article were meant as deliberate puns rather than eggcorns. However, it is easy to see how the popularity of “die-cast metal” and the obsolescence of “cast” (=throw) leads to confusion here, and it’s particularly interesting to see writers becoming unsure on the etymology.

  6. 6

    Commentary by David Groff , 2006/08/10 at 12:32 am

    “The die is cast… and the colonies must either triumph or submit” is also famously attributed to King George, in refusing to negotiate compromises that might have averted, or at least forstalled, the American Revolution. Obviously talking in gambling terms.

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