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The meaning and origin of the expression: Dead in the water

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Dead in the water

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Dead in the water'?

A dead in the water ship is one that is motionless and without power. The figurative expression 'dead in the water' means 'unable to function; without hope of future success; doomed'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Dead in the water'?

'Dead in the water' might be thought to be an allusion to dead fishes which are sometimes seen floating 'belly-up' on the surface.

Dead-in the waterIn fact, the expression originated in relation to boats, which are said to be dead in the water when their engines are dead and they have come to a dead stop.

This usage of the phrase dates back to the 19th century. An early example is found in the English newspaper The Morning Post, March 1852:

The sloop was stated to have been hove-to in a gale off the Norfolk coast on the evening of 21st December last, and while lying dead in the water and quite unmanageable.

The figurative use of 'dead in the water', that is, one where there is no mention of water or boats, began in the USA in the 1960s. The earliest that I know of is from the Washington newspaper The Port Angeles Evening News, January 1966:

A proposed shopping centre for Port Angeles appears to be "dead in the water" at present, due to the inability to purchase needed property.

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