Dead as a doornail is a phrase which means not alive, unequivocally deceased. The term goes back to the 1300s, the phrase dead as a doornail is found in poems of the time. The term dead as a doornail was used in the 1500s by William Shakespeare, and in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. It is thought that the phrase dead as a doornail comes from the manner of securing doornails that were hammered into a door by clenching them.
Clenching is the practice of bending over the protruding end of the nail and hammering it into the wood. When a nail has been clenched, it has been dead nailed, and is not easily resurrected to use again.
An alternative wording of the phrase dead as a doornail is deader than a doornail.
Using Dead as a Doornail in Writing
- Last night, the police found a body in the lake which was dead as a doornail.
- My cellphone is as dead as a doornail, so I hope she buys me a new one.
- You broke the rules, so the deal is over and dead as a doornail
- The belief that women should stay in the kitchen is as dead as a doornail.
- The love between the former high school sweethearts is as dead as a doornail.
The Origin of the Phrase “As Dead as a Doornail”
The common expression, “as dead as a doornail,” has a vague yet fascinating origin from the 1300s. It can be traced back to the famous poem of William Langland entitled Piers Plowman.
The verse goes, “Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl.” But it is unlikely that the phrase is Langland’s invention.
Langland also translated Guillaume de Palerne, a French poem, into the English language. It reads, “For bu ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.
Reason to Use It
You might wonder why Langland chose “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin nail” when it made more sense. The story goes back to a carpentry concept based on the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.
A technique called clinching creates a dead doornail. It involves hammering the nail on a piece of timber and flattening the edge over the inside, so there’s no way to reuse it. Carpenters used this treatment to make the doornails stronger before screws were invented.
A doornail is not your average nail that’s in a door. Instead, it’s a large, studded nail on a medieval door that you cannot reuse or remove anymore. Its size and oldness make it dead for proverbs.
Back then, nails were valuable because they were handmade and limited. Those who could not afford nails had to repurpose nails.
Another origin theory of the expression is that people hit a huge doornail with a knocker. The costly metal nails were placed there to make the knocking sound louder. It’s a dark humor that the nails are already dead because many have knocked on its head.
What Etymologists Have to Say
However, this theory is less credible than the first one. Etymologists favored the first origin because clinching was a widespread practice in carpentry.
So, the phrase “as dead as a doornail” is not only because doornails are inanimate objects. But it’s also because they undergo a specific treatment that causes them to “die.” Its full potential dies like an unreusable doornail.
If one says something is as dead as a doornail, it means it’s a goner. The origins sound convincing, but we may never validate them.
Poetic Roots of Dead as a Doornail
William Shakespeare did not invent the old expression. It was used in poems before Shakespeare was born, although he may have made the phrase popular through Henry VI, Part 2, in Jack Cade’s speech. The play made it famous all over England in the 16th century.
Charles Dickens also included the questionable phrase in A Christmas Carol. He said:
“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
The phrase took off when many civilians who saw the play adopted it. It’s more poetic and famous than other “dead as” phrases.
Some of the “dead as” phrases include “dead as a dodo,” “dead as a doorknob,” and “dead as a dormouse.” Similar expressions include “deaf as a doorknob” and “dumb as a doornail.”
Is Dead as a Doornail a Simile or Metaphor?
“Dead as a doornail” is an idiomatic simile that helps emphasize the adjective “dead.” So, its definition is “very dead,” “quite dead,” or “surely dead.” You can use it in any situation, whether figuratively or literally.
The expression is a simile because it uses “like” to compare things. Similes are figures of speech that use “like” and “as” for comparison. Meanwhile, metaphors directly show comparison without using “like” and “as.”
“She’s as dead as a doornail” and “she’s dead like a doornail” are similes. “She’s a dead doornail” is a metaphor, but this statement is less used.
Examples and Sentences Using Dead as a Doornail
Remember when everyone associated with Game of Thrones was like, “Jon Snow is dead as a doornail?” (Marie Clair Magazine)
Like old Marley, it was as dead as a doornail. (The Hindu)
Starting their first innings with only 62 overs left in the match, and the contest and their season dead as a doornail, Warwickshire’s batting predictably lacked intensity. (The Nottingham Post)
Efforts to follow Colorado’s lead and legalize recreational marijuana are “dead as a doornail” for California in 2014, after the national Drug Policy Alliance withdrew a proposed initiative that would regulate the drug statewide, says longtime statewide political consultant Steve Maviglio. (LA Weekly)
“No one is on Santa Monica Beach or Zuma Beach. Hardly anyone is on [the] Pacific Coast Highway. It’s dead as a doornail out there,” he said. (The Los Angeles Times)
Alderson was adamant the deal was as dead as a doornail, however. (The New York Post)
Never mind that the badge really reads OPP, that “walrus” isn’t Greek for anything, that most of the story is even less credible, and that the first paragraph inelegantly declared McCartney to be “deader than a doornail.” (The Detroit News)
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re using it in conversation or your writing, the saying “dead as a doornail” is a common, well-known phrase that just about anyone will recognize. Understanding more about how it works, its origin, and ways you can use it definitely helps. For more helpful tips like this, check out our breakdown of the phrase “at the drop of a hat”.