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Dead as a doornail

Posted by ESC on May 03, 2002

In Reply to: Dead as a doornail posted by Dorothy Caffrey on May 03, 2002

: Dead as a doornail: what is the association here?

From the archives:

DEAD AS A DOORNAIL - "Since ordinary nails aren't used in making doors, perhaps the 'nail' in this phrase, which can be traced all the way back to 1350, was a small metal plate nailed on a door that visitors pounded with the knockers attached to it when announcing their arrival. Life would eventually be pounded out of the 'nail' in that way. Then again the 'nail' could be the heavy-handed decorative nails outer doors were studded with, though why these doornails would be regarded as any 'deader' than say, coffin nails is a mystery. It has even been suggested that since nails were ordinarily used for doors, the phrase means 'dead as something that never existed.' Anyway, people are still getting good mileage out of the expression, as did Langland in 'Piers Plowman,' Shakespeare more than once, and Dickens in 'A Christmas Carol. "Dumb as a doornail' and 'deaf as a doornail' are variations on the phrase that appeared after its coining." From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997)

As dead as a doornail is an expression used to indicate actual or apparent total lack of life. The saying is many hundreds of years old and is one of many used over the centuries to describe death. It has survived longer than all the others, eg dead as mackerel, although "dead as mutton" is still in use. Medieval doors were studded with heavy nails- Doornails, one of which was used as a knocker. This nail was clearly very unresponsive and dead to the constant assault, hence the saying.

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