More Maybes

Posted by ESC on April 05, 2000

In Reply to: More Maybes posted by Bruce Kahl on April 04, 2000

: One theory holds that the "doornail" in question was not a nail as we know nails today, but rather a broad, flat plate mounted on the outside of the door to serve as a striking plate for the door knocker. Such a "nail" would be "dead" because it would be fixed tightly to the wood of the door and thus would not ring when struck as metal normally does, but rather give a dull "thump." This theory is both labored and unlikely.

: Another theory is expounded by etymologist Robert Claiborne, who noted that until the nineteenth century metal nails were both expensive and rarely used with wooden pegs being the norm. Metal nails were used in the construction of doors, however, usually driven clear through the door and then bent over on the other side, rendering them immovable (and immune to theft). Such nails were "dead" in the lingo of carpentry because they could never be removed and reused. "Dead as a doornail" is thus not just a very old saying, but a very old pun as well.

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)