Dead as a Doornail: The Meaning Behind the Popular Idiom

definition of the idiom "dead as a doornail" from the article
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    rusty door with dead as a doornail meaning
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Something that’s dead as a doornail is pretty dead. How much more dead could you get than a doornail, right? But wait a second — doornails aren’t dead at all. Why are we comparing the deadest dead things to something that was never even alive in the first place? Why don’t we say “dead as a coffin nail” (which also isn’t dead, but is a little closer to deadness)?

What Does “Dead as a Doornail” Mean?

Dead as a doornail is an idiom that means something is deceased or not alive. Super dead. Extremely not alive. You get it.

It can refer to things that are literally dead:

  • That roadkill is dead as a doornail.
  • My goldfish floated at the top of the bowl, dead as a doornail.

Or it can refer to things that are figuratively dead (or finished):

  • After that bad text exchange, our friendship is dead as a doornail.
  • Since the Wi-Fi was dead as a doornail, we couldn’t get online.
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Origin of “Dead Doornail”

The beautiful alliteration of dead as a doornail makes it fun to say. But there are lots of words that start with “d”, such as donkey, daffodil, and duck — so why bring the doornail into this grim business?

Believe it or not, a dead doornail is actually a thing. It’s a medieval carpentry term for a nail that’s been “clinched” — hammered into a door with any protruding part hammered flat. It wasn’t going anywhere, making the doornail “dead” and unfit for future use. Much like that goldfish floating in the bowl.

Literary Origins of “Dead as a Doornail”

The figurative expression dead as a doornail first appeared in print in the 14th century, in the poem “Guillaume de Palerne” (a werewolf story that’s appropriately spooky for the phrase).

Bi a schort time, I am ded as dore-nail — now do al pi wille! 

The most famous example of dead as a doornail may be from the second sentence of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail”), after which the speaker admits that a coffin nail is a possibly a better image than doornail:

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.

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“Dead as a Doornail” in Other Books, Poems, and Songs

Dead as a doornail is a common expression in other examples of literature as 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 door-nail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” - King Henry VI by William Shakespeare
  • “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 Walter 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. Hemmati
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More Deathly Idioms

If dead as a doornail isn’t what you’re looking for, try out these other idioms for a (figurative) near-death experience.

  • dead in the water - never even started
  • dead meat - in trouble
  • death by a thousand cuts - something painful and torturous
  • death warmed up - feeling very sick or exhausted
  • nail in the coffin - one step in someone’s inevitable downfall or failure
  • over my dead body - very opposed to something
  • to bite the dust - to die
  • to buy the farm - to die

Note that metaphors about death aren’t the same as dead metaphors — metaphors that have become so common that we don’t even know what they mean anymore.