Are you looking for a way to tell someone that something is dead and has been for a while? If so, you could use the phrase, “dead as a doornail.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.
The expression “dead as a doornail” means to be devoid of life entirely. It’s a way to describe an animal or person that has been dead for some time or endures a sudden and horrific death where there is no chance of survival.
When someone dies, the body goes through “rigor mortis,” where they start to stiffen. After a few hours, the person will be as stiff as a plank. As a result, you could say that they are “dead as a doornail,” comparing their rigid state to an inflexible nail.
“We found this guy sleeping on the grate this morning, but he was as dead as a doornail, so we called the police.”
“This contract is finished. It’s as dead as a doornail. We cannot live up to these commitments, and they know it.”
“The old school system is as dead as a doornail. Today kids don’t learn about science and math. They learn how not to be offensive to other people on Twitter.”
“The fish is as dead as a doornail. I got a great shot on him when he turned broadside to me, and I stoned him straight away.”
“My car is as dead as a doornail. I got into her this morning and turned the key, and nothing, not even a click.”
“The garden is looking as dead as a doornail. It hasn’t rained in months, and we’re rationing local water supplies. The grass needs a drink, but we can’t give it any water.”
The expression "dead as a doornail" originates from the 14th century. The earliest record of the saying in print comes from William Langland's translation of the French poem "Guillaume de Palerne" in 1350.
"For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl."
By the 16th century, the phrase was already widespread in use across England. Shakespeare used the expression in his 1592 play, "King Henry VI, Part 2," where the rebel leader, Jack Cade, says the following.
"Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more."
Legendary author Charles Dickens also used the expression in his work "A Christmas Carol," where it appears as follows.
"Old Marley was as dead as a doornail."
Phrases Similar to Dead as a Doornail
- Pushing up daisies.
- Dead as a mutton.
Phrases Opposite to Dead as a Doornail
- Alive and well.
What is the Correct Saying?
- Dead as a doornail.
Ways People May Say Dead as a Doornail Incorrectly
The phrase has nothing to do with doornails. A doornail is a stiff, rigid piece of steel. When people pass away, the body starts to stiffen in a process known as "rigor mortis." So, if something is as dead as a doornail, it's been dead for a while, and there is no chance of survival or recovery.
Acceptable Ways to Phrase Dead as a Doornail
You can use the expression "dead as a doornail" when you're trying to tell someone that something is dead and has no chance of survival or recovery. Typically, the being has been dead for a while and is in the process of rigor mortis, making them stiff.
The phrase suits use with people and objects. For instance, you could say you found the kid's pet rabbit dead as a doornail when you went out into the garden this morning. Or you could say the contract from the client was as dead as a doornail on its arrival due to problems with the terms.