Dead Man Walking – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

“Dead man walking” is a phrase we’ve all heard thrown around, from conversations to T.V., movies, and even books. But have you ever taken a second to think about where it could have possibly come from? I mean, it’s kind of morbid when you give it some thought. So, let’s break it down and get to the bottom of the definition of dead man walking.

What Does Dead Man Walking Mean?

Dead Man Walking Idiom Origin Meaning

You would say “dead man walking” when trying to describe a person who’s in serious danger or might be about to experience a significant negative consequence of any kind. It can be someone looking at imminent death, like a prisoner on death row or a friend who is about to lose their job due to their bad behavior.

In a lighter context, some people use the phrase to poke fun at people who made a mistake, and the consequence is facing someone they’re afraid of. It’s like when a husband accidentally forgets his wedding anniversary. His buddies might look at him and laugh, saying he’s a dead man walking.

Dead Man Walking Origin

The roots of the phrase “dead man walking” actually originated in the United States in the early 20th century. It was created in prisons to describe a man condemned to death who was being led to his execution. The guards would walk him down the corridor, and others would say, “dead man walking!”

It was popularized by the book and movie adaptation of The Green Mile in the 1990s and the nonfiction book about the death penalty by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

Today, the phrase has taken on a broader meaning and is used in various contexts, from serious circumstances to joking manners.

When to Use Dead Man Walking

You can use the phrase “dead man walking” to show that someone’s in a dire situation or about to face serious consequences. If your friend at work forgot to finish a project on time, he could be a dead man walking when the boss finds out.

What Can I Say Instead of Dead Man Walking?

Liven things up with different ways to say a dead man walking. Here is a handful of ideas you can use.

  • On borrowed time
  • At the end of the rope
  • A dead man
  • Doomed to fail
  • Facing the consequences

Dead Man Walking Examples in a Sentence

Dead Man Walking Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • After the CEO saw the quarterly earnings report, the head of the marketing department was a dead man walking.
  • I just knew I was a dead man walking when I heard the boss wanted to see me in her office after hearing about my behavior this past weekend.
  • The team was dead men walking after losing their star player to a serious injury.
  • Oh no. I forgot our anniversary. I can’t go home; I’m a dead man walking.

Don’t Become a Dead Man Walking

So, that’s all you need to know about the meaning, origin, and usage of the idiomatic phrase “dead man walking.” Sure, it sounds a bit morbid, but it’s a useful expression to have in your vocabulary when you want to convey the gravity of a certain situation.