The Origin of the Phrase “As Dead as a Doornail”

Emily Upton 2
Ranjiith asks: Why do we say something is as dead as a doornail?

old-doorIn A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote about the questionable phrase, “dead as a doornail,” saying:

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.

As with so many etymologies, we don’t know exactly why door nails were used in the phrase rather than something like coffin nails, but we have a reasonably good educated guess. Door nails were long used to strengthen the door. The person building or installing the door would hammer the nail all the way through the boards. On the other side, he would hammer the end flat, bending it so that the nail would be more secure in a process, called “clenching.” In doing so, the nail was rendered unusable for any other purpose. It would be difficult to remove and even more difficult to use again elsewhere. Thus, the bent nail was commonly called “dead” (not just to do with doors, but elsewhere where the nail was bent over and couldn’t be used again.)

As to why it is then a “doornail” instead of other cases where such clenching was done, it’s thought it was probably simply because this was commonly done with nails on doors and the euphony of the phrase caused it to stick, where other similar expressions such as “dead as a stone” simply don’t roll off the tongue as nicely.

Another less touted origin theory is that because of the doornail’s size, particularly the one securing the knocker, it had to be “hit on the head” with a hammer quite a few times more than your average nail. Because of the number of times it was hit, it would certainly be “dead” by the time the head was flush to the wood of the door—that is, if it had been a living thing rather than an inanimate object.

Either way, the phrase itself is an old one. The earliest record we have of it is from William Langland, who translated the French poem Guillaume de Palerne into English in 1350:

For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.

Langsland is also responsible for the next-oldest record, dated in 1362. This time it comes from the poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. A translation from Old English reads:

Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.

As you can see, contrary to popular belief, William Shakespeare did not coin the phrase. It was around long before Shakespeare was writing his plays and sonnets. The bard did, however, have a hand in making the phrase popular. It appears in Henry VI, Part 2, spoken by Jack Cade:

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.

Like many other phrases used by Shakespeare, after the phrase was said onstage its popularity took off. Remarkably, it’s still incredibly popular centuries later, beating out other “dead as” phrases like “dead as a dodo” and “dead as mutton.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • The phrase “like the Dickens,” as in, “hurts like the Dickens,” has nothing to do with Charles Dickens as you might assume. Rather, this was a Shakespearean invention which came about in The Merry Wives of Windsor around 1600—centuries before Charles Dickens’ time. Dickens was initially an oath meaning “devil,” possibly a shortened version of “devilkins.” In the play, it says: “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.”
  • Doornails became used less and less as screws became popular. Rudimentary screws have been around since the 1st century, but they didn’t start being mass produced until the 1770s. The screw was able to strengthen a door without the end sticking out the other side and having to be hammered down. That said, doornails are still sometimes used as decoration on doors.
  • Shakespeare is believed to have come up with up to 1900 new words, making him one of the most prolific creators of words in the English language and no doubt the scourge of Grammar Nazis of his age. However, this estimate is likely on the high side. People working on the Oxford English Dictionary in the early days are known for having a preference for Shakespearean quotes when citing the origins of words. In some cases, new, earlier entries for words have been added relatively recently. For instance, the word puke was once attributed to Shakespeare but is now known to have been around before his time.
  • Shakespeare is, in fact, the first known user of many words that start with un-. He was a fan of the prefix and attached it to words that previously hadn’t used un-. Examples include unhelpful, uneducated, undress, and unreal, plus some 300 other un-words. He also gave new meaning to the words uncomfortable and unlock; the first had once meant “inconsolable” rather than “discomfort.” The second had only been used in the literal sense—that is, physically turning a key—while Shakespeare used it to mean “display.” Shakespeare was also a fan of the suffixes –er and –less, giving us words like swagger and dauntless, among others.
  • It was Lewis Carroll who spread the phrase “as dead as a dodo” by using a dodo as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The doomed bird is thought to have died out by 1690, with the last known sighting of a live bird in 1662. (See: Why the Dodo Went Extinct)

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