“Dead as a doornail” is an interesting idiom with a complex and long history. It is also one that still doesn’t make a great deal of sense. English speakers, new and native, have wondered over the nature of this idiom, and its true origin, for centuries. What exactly is it about a “doornail” that more dead than any other kind of nail?
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Meaning of “Dead as a doornail”
“Dead as a doornail” is a very common idiom that’s been used for several centuries to refer to something that’s completely, totally, and irrevocably dead. The phrase is used when someone wants to emphasize how lifeless a particular object, event, or even a person appears to be. One might also use it in reference to their own emotional state or that of someone else.
When to Use “Dead as a doornail”
The phrase “dead as a doornail” should be used among friends, family, and colleagues. It is quite easy with idioms, especially one like this, to use it inappropriately in more serious situations, so it is better to avoid doing so.
“Dead as a doornail” might be used by someone to refer to almost anything, for example, how a plant looks, how a class experience was, what a party was like, and sadly, to the passing of another person. Because the phrase is rather insensitive, it is more likely that one will hear it in regard to someone the speaker was not close to. Or, if they were, they would likely say it as a way to ignore their true emotions and the pain of what’s happened.
Example Sentences with “Dead as a doornail”
- Did you go to that party last night? It was dead as a doornail.
- What was it like visiting your aunt? “Oh, we didn’t go. She’s dead as a doornail.”
- I wish I could keep my plants alive. They’re all dead as a doornail.
- What’s wrong with you? You’re acting as dead as a doornail!
- How much longer are you doing to make me wait? I’ll be dead as a doornail before you’re ready.
Why Do Writers Use “Dead as a doornail?”
Writers use phrases like “dead as a doornail” for a variety of different reasons. Someone like Charles Dickens (see below) used the phrase as a way of creating a bit of humor in a dark and scary moment. His speaker, Scrooge, muses on the meaning of the idiom after using it. This is a great example of how the phrase is used in a new and original way. Often, idioms such as this one have been used for so long and by so many people that they’re no longer beneficial in dialogue. But, if used well and in some new original way, it can make a passage more interesting.
Origins of “Dead as a doornail”
The phrase “dead as a doornail” has been used to some extent since the 14th century. There is a very interesting reference to the phrase in a French poem Guillaume de Palerne, translated by William Langland. It reads:
For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.
The same translator also included the phrase in a version of the poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman from 1362. This time it read:
Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl.
This is further translated to, “Faith without works is feebler than nothing and dead as a doornail.” It should be noted that just because the translator used this phrase in his translation of the poem doesn’t mean it is exactly the original writer’s intention.
By the time that William Shakespeare was writing his famous plays and poems, the phrase was widely used in English-speaking society. It appears in King Henry VI Part II, written in the 1590s. The line of dialogue reads:
Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.
One of the most well-known references to something being “dead as a doornail,” and often where people attribute the phrase, is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. He writes that “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.” Scrooge then continues one to wonder “what there is particularly dead about a door-nail” and suggest that “a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.” He also alludes to the fact that the phrase has been around for a while, “But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it.”
- “As dead as a dodo.”
- “Bit the dust.”
- “Beyond the pale.”
- “In the same boat.”
- “When it rains, it pours.”
- “Through thick and thin.”