Where Did the Saying “Dead as a Doornail” Come From?


The expression “dead as a doornail” conjures up such a peculiar image that it begs the question: what makes a doornail any deader than an ordinary nail? This vivid simile has been knocking on the English language’s door since the 14th century, well before Shakespeare decided whether to be or not to be.

This idiom, used to describe something that is unequivocally dead or utterly devoid of life, has colored our language for centuries.

But have you ever wondered how this peculiar expression, involving a doornail of all things, came to signify the absolute certainty of death? The journey of this phrase is as fascinating as it is ancient, weaving through the tapestry of English literature and history.

From the pen of William Langland to the iconic works of Shakespeare, “dead as a doornail” has stood the test of time, but its story is not as straightforward as it seems.

Join us as we delve into the captivating history of this idiom, exploring its literary beginnings and how it has cemented itself in the lexicon of the English language.

Historical Origins of the Phrase

The expression “as dead as a doornail” isn’t just a quirky saying one might toss around at a Halloween party; it has deep historical roots and has been polished by literary greats across the ages.

William Langland, an English poet, is often credited with the first known usage of “dead as a doornail” in his narrative poem, The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman.

In the poem, the phrase is used to describe something that is completely and unquestionably dead. The choice of the word “doornail” is interesting because, in those times, doornails were nails that were hammered into doors and then bent over, making them unusable and effectively “dead.”

This made the doornail a fitting symbol for something that has no life or use left in it.

Langland’s use of “dead as a doornail” in his poem was the beginning of its journey into the English language. It started as a creative expression in a medieval poem and became a common way to describe something that is absolutely lifeless.

Shakespeare’s Take

Fast forward a couple of centuries to the Bard himself. Shakespeare had a knack for snappy verbiage, and he certainly didn’t skip past this phrase.

In Henry VI, a character named Jack Cade declares he’s ready to make a Lord as dead as a doornail.

Dickensian Revival

Oh, but the tale doesn’t end in the Globe Theatre! The phrase enjoyed a Victorian-era revival with Charles Dickens. It found its way into A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserly old business partner Jacob Marley was explained to be as dead as… you guessed it, a doornail.

Doornails & Ironmongery Explained

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of medieval hardware, one must know that the saying “as dead as a doornail” doesn’t involve ghosts of ironmongery past. It’s a phrase that hinges, quite literally, on the historical use of nails.

The term “doornail” refers to hefty, hand-forged nails used in the medieval era. Ironmongery was the craft of the day, turning raw iron into useful items including latches, hinges, and of course, nails.

These nails weren’t your run-of-the-mill hardware store variety; they were the strong, silent types, enduring the slamming and banging of doors.

Doornail CharacteristicsDescription
MaterialIron, forged by hand
PurposeTo secure and strengthen doors
VisibilityProminently displayed, for strength and aesthetics

How Reuse Led to the Death of a Nail

After multiple slams of the door, one realizes that the bent nature of a used doornail rendered it nearly unusable for a new door.

In a time when reuse was the name of the game, a doornail was a single-use ticket; once it finished its doorly duties, it was as good as dead—hence, the phrase “as dead as a doornail” took its place in the lexicon.

One might say doornails didn’t get a second lease on life; they were bent once, and forever held their peace.

Variations of the Phrase “Dead as a Doornail”

One might say that the saying “dead as a doornail” has relatives lounging about in the linguistic mortuary.

As dead as a doornailClassic, almost festive
As dead as a dodoQuirky, slightly mournful
Dead as muttonQuiet, potentially tasty
Coffin nailGrim, with a metallic tang

Those who find “doornail” a tad too genteel might opt for its avian cousin, “as dead as a dodo,” summoning the ghost of a bygone bird that’s become an emblem of extinction. This phrase is used to describe someone or something that is out of date or no longer relevant.

But why stop there? The phrase has kinfolk of the culinary variety as well, with “dead as mutton” suggesting something has not just ceased to be, but has done so with the quietude of well, cooked sheep.

Wrapping it Up

Today, the saying “dead as a doornail” is still widely used in the English language. It serves as a powerful way to say something is completely dead or no longer working.

This phrase has lasted for centuries, moving from old poems to our everyday conversations. Its ability to stay popular over such a long time shows just how expressive and flexible language can be.

When we use “dead as a doornail” now, it connects us to the past while helping us clearly express a sense of finality or end in a simple, yet vivid way.