Dead as a Doornail: Poetic Origins of a Common Term

Have you heard the expression “dead as a doornail”? Ever wonder what it meant? Learn what "dead as a doornail" means, along with its poetic roots. Get examples of how to use it in everyday expressions.

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What Does Dead as a Doornail Mean?

Did you ever squash a bug and think, “that’s as dead as a doornail”? Well, if you squashed it, then it sure was. “Dead as a doornail” is a common expression that means something is deceased or not alive. So if you see an animal dead on the side of the road, it would be appropriate to say, “it’s dead as a doornail.” While the reasoning behind something being "dead as a doornail" is still speculated, it’s a term with some long literary roots.

Poetic Roots of Dead as a Doornail

The “dead as a doornail” origin goes back, way back. In fact, the first time that “dead as a doornail” appeared in print was in 1350. A French poem translated by William Langland called Guillaume de Palerne had the line:

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

But why “dead as a doornail”? Why not "dead as a coffin nail"? That would have made more sense, right? While no one can be exactly sure why something is as dead as a doornail, the reasoning, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, goes back to carpentry.

In early carpentry, you would pound a huge doornail into a door then bend the back of it so that it wouldn’t come out. This was called "cinching" in technical speak, but it was also called "dead" or "dead in the wood." Therefore, that nail was never coming out! So, if something is as “dead as a dead doornail,” then it’s undoubtedly a goner.

Examples of Dead as a Doornail

“Dead as a doornail” has made its way into poems, literature and song lyrics. It was even featured as a title in the fifth book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. Check out a few ways it’s been used throughout history and today.

  • “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.” - King Henry VI by William Shakespeare

  • “You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

  • “But when I get closer she opens her mouth and she's dead as a doornail.” - Dead as a Doornail by Claver Menezes

  • "Replete with sparkling sherry, / That angels hov’ring round my cry, / When I lie dead as door-nail:" - Free Imitation of a Latin Ode by Waltek de Mapes

  • "This affair is dead as a doornail / Hey, baby won't you let me go” - Let Me Go by The Rolling Stones

  • "I've lost all I once had due to what I can't tell. / I'm dead as a doornail." - Where Were You by A. Hemmatic

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Sentences Using Dead as a Doornail

Do you need a little more help seeing how this idiom is used in everyday English? Not to worry! Enjoy these simple sentence examples you can work into your everyday speech.

  1. As we were driving, we saw a possum as dead as a doornail on the side of the road.

  2. That fish is as dead as a doornail. You need to remove it from the tank.

  3. That horse is dead as a doornail. We should have someone remove it from the barn.

  4. You’re going to be dead as a doornail if you don’t get home right now.

  5. Your couch is as dead as a doornail. It’s time for a new one.

  6. The cow was dead as a doornail. So, we took it to the meat processing plant.

  7. I was afraid the lion would pounce, but it was dead as a doornail.

  8. After listening to my dad’s threat the last time I missed curfew, I knew I’d be dead as a doornail if I didn’t make it home on time.

  9. The woman in the accident was dead as a doornail.

  10. He looked dead as a doornail after hearing the shocking news.

Using Idioms

Idioms like “dead as a doornail” find their way into English in exciting ways. Learn more about fun idioms by checking out idioms about money. Additionally, idioms about food are deliciously appealing.