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

Dead as a Doornail

Next, something “dead as a doornail” is completely dead. There’s no hope. A squirrel squished flat is “dead as a doornail,” as is a bill voted down by both houses of Congress. 

We can date this expression to 1350, but its origin is unclear. We know that door-nails were large metal nails hammered into the outer doors of fancy houses. This was done to join the planks of a door together, to strengthen them, and to decorate them. 

We also know that door-knockers struck a plate called a “doornail.”  

But why would either of these things be considered “dead”?

One explanation is that after a doornail was hammered through a door, its protruding tip would be “clinched.” That is, it would be bent over and buried in the inner face of the door, tying the timbers of the door together. This would render the nail “dead”—incapable of being pulled out and used again.

Another explanation is that the kind of doornail used under a knocker would be struck over and over, all day long, in a busy household. Perhaps this daily beating left little life in the poor doornail?

A final explanation is that similar phrases, such as “deaf as a doornail” and “dumb as a doornail” appeared about the same time in history. Perhaps all of them were used simply because they sounded cool; people couldn’t resist all that alliteration.

Whatever the explanation, know that if something’s dead as a doornail, it’s really, truly dead. 

Dead in the Water

Next, “dead in the water” refers to an idea or an object that’s completely stalled. If none of your friends want to dress up for Halloween, your idea for a costume party  might be dead in the water. Same thing if your new business can’t find any backers. 

This expression was first used literally, to describe a ship unable to move. An 1871 article in the “Times of India” describes a ship “lying dead in the water” after “the sea broke on board the vessel, and she refused to answer her helm.” And a 1956 “New York Times” article describes two ships “dead in the water” after they collided in the nighttime off the coast of Nova Scotia.

We still use the term in a literal sense, but more often, we use it in a figurative sense, to describe an idea or a plan that’s unable to move forward.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these deadly phrases. Next week, we’ll continue celebrating Halloween with a talk about skeleton keys and skeletons in the closet.


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.