24+ 'Dead' Idioms: Dead Ringer, Dead in the Water, and More

The word "dead" has been in English since the time of "Beowulf," which has given it plenty of time to find a home in English idioms about death and more.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #591

A creepy image of a graveyard to illustrate idioms about death

Halloween is just around the corner, so with that in mind, this week we’re investigating some spooky idioms. Specifically, ones that include the word “dead.”

It’s not surprising that “dead” is an especially old word—going all the way back to Old English—since it describes such a universally relevant state. The earliest example of the word “dead” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from "Beowulf," which is about 1,000 years old: “Then was Heregar dead, my elder brother not living.”

But “dead” is also a pretty popular word in the dictionary. In fact, the OED lists 31 distinct meanings for “dead”!

  • For example, “dead” can mean “absolute” or “complete,” as in “dead serious,” “dead wrong,” or “dead drunk.”
  • It can mean “profound” or “deep.” Think of a sailboat stranded in a windless, waveless “dead calm.” Or the “dead silence” you might experience in a graveyard, late at night.
  • Dead can mean “straight,” as in “dead ahead.”
  • Dead can also mean “flat” or “tasteless.” We say that soda is “dead” when it’s old and all its fizz has floated away. 
  • “Dead” can also mean “without commercial or social activity.” We might skip out on a dead party, for example—one that was just not happening. Or avoid a dance club where no one dances—because it’s “always dead.”  

In addition to these distinct meanings, the OED lists 160 expressions that include the word “dead.” Wow. We’re going to look at just a few.

Dead Ringer

A “dead ringer” is a person or thing that looks exactly like another. You might dress as Wonder Woman for Halloween if you’re a dead ringer for Gal Godot or wave to someone who is trick-or-treating because he’s a dead ringer for one of your friends. Whoops.

To understand this expression, pair one of the meanings of “dead”—absolute—with the meaning of “ringer”—a person who closely resembles another. You get someone who looks exactly like another person; a doppelganger, if you will.

“Ringer” is often used to describe a star athlete pulled into a competition at the last minute to give a team an unfair advantage. The word “ring” has shady connotations of its own, many of which suggest deviousness or thievery. 

For example, an 1897 dictionary includes the phrases “ring in,” meaning to sneakily add or substitute cards in a pack; “ring the changes,” meaning to swap bad money for good; and “ring in,” meaning to insinuate yourself into company where you’re not wanted.

These uses are mostly obsolete, but the dictionary lists one definition of “ring” that’s all too current: a gang of thieves, politicians, or mobsters who band together to rob the public.


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.