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The term deadeye means

(informal, chiefly North American) An expert marksman

Oxford Dictionaries Online

(There is an apparently unrelated sense of the term referring to a specific type of nautical block.)

Numerous other online dictionaries give nearly identical meanings, and a few also list it as an adjective with an equivalent meaning. But none of these sources give an etymology.

A search on etymonline.com gives no results.

A quick review of ngrams shows the term being used as a name or nickname as early as 1829 and a character known as Dick Deadeye appears in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, but none of these 19th century cites seem to relate to a marksmanship characteristic.

There also seems to be a series of dime novels featuring Deadeye Dick, but I cannot find any text to indicate if the name is associated with a sharpshooting skill.

So, can anyone assist with the origin of the term deadeye to mean marksman?

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    Off the cuff: dead has a gloss meaning perfect or impeccable: without flaw. And eye is often used metaphorically or synecdochally to mean vision, aka the use of the eye, in this case for spotting a target. So deadeye seems to me to be analogous to the situation with tin ear, meaning low quality (viz tin as a metal vs iron or gold) hearing (use of ear as synecdoche or meiosis for hearing). As for first use or coinage, I'll leave that to our Google nGra-mloving experts. – Dan Bron May 4 '16 at 17:28
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    @DanBron I was tempted to speculate as well, and also thought of unblinking (like a dead man) and a few other possible lines, but decided to put it to my colleagues to see if someone actually knew. – bib May 4 '16 at 17:35
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    Deadeye: 1740-50; dead + eye; as nautical term, probably ellipsis from deadman's eye, Middle English dedmaneseye deadeye. – user66974 May 4 '16 at 18:17
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    @Josh61 As it said, it is likely unrelated. But epistemologically speaking, I'm not convinced there's any such thing as certainty ;) – Dan Bron May 4 '16 at 18:30
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    @Dan Bron - you are paying a fat bounty for an etymological question...what's going on? – user66974 May 9 '16 at 14:51
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+250

I think this is related to the phrase "dead on," which is also used in marksmanship and comes from the fact that what makes a shot successful is often that it's fatal.

OED has:

Quite certain, sure, unerring. (Cf. dead certainty in sense A. 31a.) dead shot, one whose aim is certain death; so dead on the bird. dead-on: certain, unerring, exactly right (see quot. 1889). See also dead-hand n. 2.

a1592 R. Greene Sc. Hist. Iames IV (1598) iii. sig. F, I am dead at a pocket sir..I can..picke a purse assoone as any theefe in my countrie.

1681 J. Chetham Angler's Vade Mecum x. 74 It's a dead bait for a Trout.

1776 F. Marion in Harper's Mag. Sept. (1883) 547/2: It was so dead a shot they none of them said a word.

1830 M. R. Mitford Our Village IV. 42: A silent, stupid, and respectable country gentleman, a dead vote on one side of the House.

1853 Dickens Bleak House xxvi. 261: With a gun in his hand, with much of the air of a dead shot.

1874 G. W. Dasent Half a Life II. 227 Those who do so..are almost always dead plucks.

1889 A. Barrère & C. G. Leland Dict. Slang I. 300/2: Dead-on (riflemen), straight on. A rifle-shot talks of the aiming being dead-on when the day is so calm that he can aim straight at the bull's eye instead of having to allow to the right or left for wind. He is said to be dead-on himself when he is shooting very well.

1959 Punch 17 June 815/1: She sang all night with pure, dead-on tone.

1966 ‘K. Nicholson’ Hook, Line & Sinker ix. 102: Don't you think a gesture like this is simply dead-on, when it comes to showing how with-it the Church is today?

For dead-hand:

  1. colloq. An expert (at doing something).

1848 Thackeray Bk. Snobs vii. 31: He is a dead hand at piquet.

1862 G. O. Trevelyan Interludes in Verse & Prose (1905) 181: A young member of the Secretariat, a dead hand at a minute.

1888 ‘R. Boldrewood’ Robbery under Arms I. xv. 194: First-rate work it was, too; he was always a dead hand at splitting.

It seems like "dead-eyed" is a variant of "sure-eyed" using this sense of 'dead.'

Edit- Just to make this explicit: skilled marksmen are often referred to as "sure-eyed," "keen-eyed," "true-eyed," etc. because of the importance of vision in getting a good shot.


Edit 2: Bib asked how 'dead' came to mean 'total' or 'exact.' The 'quite certain, sure, unerring' sense I quoted first says cf. dead certainty in sense A. 31a, which is

Absolute, complete, entire, thorough, downright. Also dead-earnest in adj. use.

[Arising out of various earlier senses.]

1660 R. Sharrock Hist. Veg. 20 Till the seed..be come to a full and dead ripenesse.

1766 O. Goldsmith Vicar of Wakefield I. xii. 119, I had them a dead bargain.

1805 Scott Let. 12 Apr. (1932) I. 248 This is a dead secret.

1842 S. Kettell Quozziana 47, I saw, to a dead certainty, that if I should..be caught with my mouth open, I should be expected to say something. ...

The "various earlier senses" seem to be along the lines of 'completely still':

A.18:

Characterized by absence of physical activity, motion, or sound; profoundly quiet or still. (earliest 1548)

A.22:

Of water, air, etc.: Without motion or current; still, standing; (earliest a1000, a1552)

It is plausible to me that the sense involved in 'dead shot' arose fairly independently, though, because of the close connection between shooting accuracy and death.


This 1906 United Service Magazine has the earliest use of "dead eye" for a marksman I can find:

We all know what carnage can be inflicted if "the man behind the gun" will only keep himself cool and collected, alter his sights as the occasion requires, and aim with merely reasonable accuracy in the required direction. We do not require the "bull's eye shot" for this, but only a man who has been carefully drilled in the handling of his rifle, and can hit a third class target, say, at 500 yards. The Bisley marksman who can score twenty-six bull's-eyes running by the aid of verniers and wind-gauges is out of his element in war; our old friend the "dead eye," the marksman who makes such a wonderful score in the yearly courses, is little, if any, better than the much despised second- or third-class shot.

This early use of "dead eye" as someone who is really proficient at target shooting is really notable. It suggests to me that the term may be more closely connected to "bull's eye" than I expected—like "dead on the bull's eye" or "dead shot to the bull's eye."

Such an origin would also explain why I'm not finding any early "dead-eyed" references, which you'd expect if it came from "sure-eyed."

Edit: The use of "bull's eye shot" to refer to a person is also noteworthy: "We do not require the "bull's eye shot" for this, but only a man who has been carefully drilled..."

  • +1 Great info, but any guidance as to how dead comes to mean total or exact? It seems to be a late 16th - early 17th century issue. – bib May 9 '16 at 23:32
  • @bib Found a bit more in the OED article on that, added it above. – Hungry May 10 '16 at 0:08
  • Any reference to a dead shot (so accurate as to result in death, especially in the age of inaccurate guns) might get us a lot closer. – bib May 10 '16 at 1:47
  • @bib There are two in the first block quote. – Hungry May 10 '16 at 1:54
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    @DanBron – Thanks! Your bounty fueled such a fun discussion. – Hungry May 18 '16 at 21:38
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You've referred to etymonline, but perhaps you need to think of it as a compound adjective+noun, not a simple noun:

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=dead

Used from 16c. in adjectival sense of "utter, absolute, quite" (as in dead drunk, first attested 1590s; dead heat, 1796)

As such, someone with a "dead eye" or who was a "dead-eyed shot" had an absolutely sense of aim, and was thus an excellent marksman. See definition 6 of eye vs the literal squishy thing in your face:

the power of seeing; appreciative or discriminating visual perception:

Hence, "an absolute ability to see" or "an utter power of visual perception".

The previous etymonline link does mention shooting, but in the slightly different sense of:

Dead on is 1889, from marksmanship

... and this is probably the same root (as also in "dead on target", "dead shot") and chronology (as earlier guns weren't renowned for accuracy no matter how good a shot you were). The HMS Pinafore use could perhaps refer to cannon shot instead of blunderbuss usage, therefore (I'd be interested if there are any earlier bow-and-arrow references, as archers could be extremely accurate - hence the bullseye as in "able to hit a bull in the eye"/"the small red disc at the centre of a target"/"a small target").

https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dead-shot

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/dead+on+target

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/bull-s-eye

EDIT

More supposition... thinking about the nautical use of "deadeye" - an item used in the standing and running rigging of traditional sailing ships - I suppose it's possible that there's a convergence of meaning here. A "deadeye shot" from a cannon (not famous for their aim when onboard a moving vessel) could cripple a rival sailing ship if it hit that area

Single deadeyes (or bull's eyes) are used to guide and control a line and, particularly in older vessels, to change its direction

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadeye

That in turn may also give rise to the "bullseye" as well, as it's a common link between the phrases: hit that bit, and your opponent is disabled. That's far more valuable than sinking a ship, as they were expensive things to be captured instead of left on the seabed.

Interestingly, that same wikilink states that archery does not refer to the bullseye, instead referring to the centre as "the gold", so that perhaps explains a lack of usage in earlier sources.

  • I believe this to be true, too, but I was hoping some expert (off-site) had asserted it before we did, ideally in the pristine halls of history, where the reverberations of criticism can never reach. But +1 either way. – Dan Bron May 9 '16 at 14:53
  • @DanBron I can't find any usage or definition that's definitive, authoritative, categorical or otherwise. However, I've just edited my answer to further confuse the issue, by linking both folk theories together. I commend it to the house :) – Prof Yaffle May 9 '16 at 15:21
  • The etymonline reference offers dead drunk (1590s) earlier than dead heat (1790s). The basis for dead drunk seems much more intuitive - so drunk he could pass for dead. But how did it morph to absolutely in general? – bib May 9 '16 at 15:24
  • @bib That's worth a separate question. Speculation 2.0: dead is an absolute state, unequivocal and permanent. – Dan Bron May 9 '16 at 15:25
  • @DanBron I happily yield to you on that question. And thanks for the bounty. It obviously inspired some efforts. – bib May 9 '16 at 15:26
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I have not been able to find a concrete link, but in addition to all of the above, it seems to have roots and influences in nautical/mechanical terms, hunting/sportsman terms, and with the shift from outdoor shooting/hunting to target shooting/marksmanship, the shift from "dead shot" to "dead eye" happened sometime after WWI, and the generalization to athletic prowess and hand-eye agility occurred shortly thereafter in the decades that followed.

1) deadeye or dead man's eye

enter image description here

(Google image) "deadeye" from "dead man's eye" = nautical term From: "The Sailor's Word-book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms " by Admiral William Henry Smyth (1867) - "A sort of roundish flat wooden block or oblate piece of elm...The term dead seems to have been used because there is no revolving sheave to lessen the friction..."

2) dead center (also: "exact" = dead center of a target, or dead point: a center that does not revolve in a machine tool.

enter image description here

  • from Websters Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary 1971

3) dead shot

There are many examples of "dead shot" in literature: one as the title of the play "Dead Shot, a farce in one act" by J.B. Buckstone, an English playwright of the late 19th century, and a second, later example: "He had always been afraid of Wonota. She was a dead shot and he believed that she would not shrink from killing him." from "Ruth Fielding in the Great Northwest Or The Indian Girl Star of the Movies", by Alice B Emerson, 1921. There's also a character, an expert marksman, named "Deadshot" who is a member of the Suicide Squad.

However, I find the most compelling evidence in a definition from "The Dead Shot, Or, Sportsman's Complete Guide, being a treatise on the use of guns..." By Marksman, 1863:

  • "The Dead Shot" - He only can be called a "dead shot" who can bring down, with unerring precision, on October or November partridge, whenever it offers a fair chance, i.e., rises within a certain range. No matter what the line of flight taken by the bird; whether it transverse, curved, rectilineal, oblique, or otherwise, to right or to left, and to or from the sportsman, if there are no obstructions, as trees or fences, the "dead shot" will knock it down and bag it; and no game is considered killed that is not bagged.

    This defninition, however, does not imply that every partridge which rises within range must be killed, in order to sustain the character of a "dead shot". If so rigorous a construction were put upon the explanation given, a "dead shot" would be a nonentity. A too sudden surprise, a slip or stumble, a rheumatic cringe, or some other unexpected occurrence, may cause the best shot to miss. But making allowances for all such events, with preparation and expectation at his elbow, few indeed are the "fair chances" that escape a "dead shot".

    Where game is abundant, and there is no scarcity of powder and shot, a great many birds may be killed in a day, but he who, with few birds and few shots, fills the game bag, is, at least, "a sportsman", if not a "dead shot."

4) dominant eye .... deadeye

In marksmanship there is a concept of "dominant eye" sighting: Dominant Eye or Master Eye: "No matter if you are shooting a rifle, shotgun or handgun, you will first need to determine your dominant or master eye. The "dominant eye" is the eye you use for sighting purposes. The dominant eye is the stronger of your two eyes." From IHEA (International Hunter Education Association - website page titled "Shooting Skills". The dominant eye remains fixed, while the non-dominant eye shifts in order to focus and reduce the intrusion of ghost targets.

From wordola.com, there is an abundant use of "deadeye", mostly referring to athletic acuity and agility, in a broad range of sports from basketball to golf. However, I found most interesting a reference to "deadeye" in marbles: a way to shoot a marble with a top spin, (rather than a backspin), so that the top of the marble remains in one still position while it rotates as it rolls. One marble player who became quite adroit at recess and won many valuables on the playground called himself a "deadeye" at marbles.

From a few examples in literature: - From Tobias Wolff's memoir, "This Boy's Life": ...taught my mother so well that she became a better shot than he was — a real deadeye.

-From Jerome Klinkowitz 2012 "Kurt Vonnegut's America", in critiquing "Deadeye Dick", he states, " deadeye dick is more properly a nickname for a sailor...But a century later, in a landlocked part of the American Midwest, it has been applied more literally to marksmanship."

5) dead naught (nuts) / dead on / dead on balls accurate (an industry term)
From: http://forum.weldingtipsandtricks.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1261 2011

  • "I use the expression " dead nuts on" on an almost daily basis, but I never once thought about where it came from...This...version i found on a website called "blurtit"...A bit of a combination of origins. "dead" as in "dead naught" or "dead plumb" has roots in nautical measurement and carpentry to mean "precisely". In this case "nuts" refers to the double zero "00" common on measurement and surveying equipment (non-electronic). If a measurement is precisely at the double zero, such as when closing out a surveying loop, this is the most precision possible with the given piece of equipment. You may also hear surveyors refer to this as "balls on" measurement for the same reason. I use it mostly for measurement, like, that hole has to be bored out to 3.1232" and it has to be dead nuts on for a precise fit." And of course, there is the film "My Cousin Vinny" with the famous line "dead on balls accurate"...

I am neither mechanically nor nautically inclined. I am not a bad shot for a beginner with my Ruger, but like most women, I have cross-dominance and will likely never develop a deadeye... In all, I agree with Sven. His reference to "dead aim" is akin to "dead ahead" which is vessel-related, but someone has to do the pointing and shooting (or steering) right?

Also, I believe that the HMS Pinafore character, who wore an eyepatch, has little to do with the term "deadeye" evolving into its North American usage. The nautical "dead eye", with holes that had no moving parts, and the many nautical variations of usage for the term "dead", may have some loan-ish influence on mechanical use of "dead" as in unmoving and "dead" as is alignment in sportsmanship, among other influences. But I think once "dead shot" became contextualized to land based hunting sport, it lost its nautical connection. And from there, when marksmanship transitioned into target/shooting range sport (as the culture shifted from "bagging game" to "marking paper") the measure of mastery was less in the bird count and more in the target scoring, and so marksmanship technique focused more on the behaviors and attributes of the shooter, than the shooting experience as a whole; to be a "dead shot" in partridge bagging became "dead eye" in target shooting.

  • +1 Good information. I'm still looking for that point of transition from dead shot or dead on to dead eye. Some suggest it was as late as post WWII, but no real info (yet). – bib May 10 '16 at 12:34
  • @Hungry Great find. And it's UK even though most commentators suggest that usage is primarily US. – bib May 10 '16 at 17:26
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'Deadeye' and the character 'Dead-Eye Dick'

The outlaw character known as "Dead-Eye Dick" appears to be one of the sources of deadeye in the sense of a marksman. An early mention of the character and his marksmanship appears in Arthur Holt, The Bible as a Community Book (1920):

The first person to offer a solution of the problem [of living together] was Dead-Eye Dick, the crack shot of all this district. He sought to build a community based on fear of himself. He acquired an authority which few dared to dispute. Armed to the teeth with the latest man-killing instruments, he ruled over the length and breadth of No-Man's Land.

And from "Dead Eye Dick Plays Lead in Y. M. C. A. Show," in the Rock Island [Illinois] Argus (March 9, 1920):

Dead Eye Dick and the Boys of '49 will be among the leading characters in the Y. M. C. A. circus scheduled for March 25 at the Y. M. C. A. Sidney Gordon, on of the managers of the show, says that he expects to import the most notorious sharp shooters of the wild west to help out on the circus.

Early instances where "Dead Eye Dick" refers specifically to an accurate shot include "Copettes After Dead Eye Dick: D. C. Policewomen Busy Learning How to Handle Revolver and Rifle," in the Washington [D.C.] Herald (July 3, 1919):

Although timid about pulling the trigger of the regulation six-shooter, the girls are rapidly getting in the Dead Eye Dick class, according to police officials.

The name comes up in connection with Wild West dime novels of an even earlier time, although in many of these, no special weight is given to his being a crack shot. From "Letters to Aunt Laurie From Nephews and Nieces," in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (February 14, 1909):

I had a boy friend who would read books with titles such as "Dead Eye Dick," "Indian Bill," etc., and tell me all about them, and tell stories like them when asked to give an oral composition at school. Such books as he read should never have been published.

and from "Dime Novels to Bad Man," in the [Walla Walla, Washington] Evening Statesman (January 18, 1906):

CINCINNATI [Ohio], Jan. 18.—Edward Pettis, 17 years old, consumer of "Dead-Eye Dick" novels and would-be "bad man," rushed into the office of Stem, Heidman & Mehlhope, attorneys, in the traction building yesterday, flourishing a big six-shooter. Bringing it to the level of Attorney John Rohrer's eyes, the boy ordered him to write a check for $50.

And in connection with early movie heroes, in "Moving Pictures Teach Lessons," in the Las Vegas [Nevada] Optic (November 24, 1911):

The idea is, Father Dowling said, to wean children from the melodrama stronghold that the present motion picture show typifies. There will be no Jesse James or Dead Eye Dick heroes at St. Aloysius. Comic films are in demand, however.

One early example, though, seems to use "deadeye Dick" as a personification of shooting expertise. From "Mahanoy City," in the [Shenandoah Pennsylvania] Evening Herald (April 26, 1894):

The long talked-of pigeon match between T. F. Gorman, of Mahanoy City, and Joe Martin, better known as "Deadeye Dick," also of Mahanoy City, will take place at 3:30 o'clock to-morrow afternoon, in Mahanoy Cuty, Park for $300 a side. Each man will shoot at nine birds. William Cooper, the well known marksman, is to be referee. Martin is the favorite in the betting, but Mr. Gorman is confident of winning.

And from "That Jolly Hunting Party," in the Williams [Arizona] News (November 5, 1910):

Lee Tabor, Dead Eye Dick, was first lucky, shot a 2 point buck off of the rim of the canyon and he fell 20 feet below and broke off both horns, so it was unnecessary to pack the head into camp.

The origin of the name "Dead Eye Dick" is not clearly established, but at least one person who answered to the name was a Chicago man who spent 40 years as a professional safe-cracker and robber and then became an evangelist for the next 16 years (at which point he died). A discussion of his career appears in "'Dead Eye Dick' Dies," in the Hot Springs, [South Dakota] Weekly Star (April 25, 1913), which says that Lane favored the name "Dead Eye Dick" during his years as a criminal, but gives no indication that he was particularly accurate with a gun—or indeed adept with guns at all. A photograph included in the article shows an older, bald man with heavy-lidded eyes, neither eye seems unfocused, as might be expected of a truly "dead eye." In any case, since Lane's conversion to proselytizing Christianity occurred in 1897, he was certainly known as "Dead Eye Dick" in the late 1800s, and perhaps as early as the 1850s.


Competition from and confusion with 'Dick Deadeye'

Competing with the name Dead Eye Dick is the name Dick Dead Eye, made famous in the first instance by the sailor character of that name in Gilbert & Sullivan's hugely popular H. M. S. Pinafore; or The Lass That Loved a Sailor (1878), but also appearing as the name of Wild West characters, at least as early as 1900. From "The Dirty Dozen Club," in The Dalles [Oregon] Daily Chronicle )May 12, 1896):

The club contains no bowling alley or gymnastic apparatus as yet, but the library is well stocked with such tales of adventure as "Ten Buckets of Blood, or Boy's Revenge," "Dick Dead Eye, the Blind Scout," "Nosebag Gallagher, the Terror of the Black Hills," "The Maiden's Escape, or the Keyhole in the Door," etc. Here the boys have chewed and smoked and told vulgar yarns and read hair breadth escapes, played cards and gambled to their unbounded delight for no one knows how long, but if their rendezvous is not broken up soon by the officers, the high water will do the work.

and from W.H. Morris, "A Bison Drive in Kansas," in the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Herald (October 31, 1897):

One hardened old sinner, who had knocked around the world long enough to become incredulous and skeptical to such a degree as to render himself absolutely disagreeable—a sort of "Dick Deadeye"—who had been one of the drivers that day, and who had been caught in the push, gave it as his deliberate opinion that there was nothing in this view of the case [namely that the bison drive had been a failure due to the lack of good moral character among the drivers]; that all the certificates this side of Sheol would have no restraining influence on a lot of blankety blanked stampeding buffalo.

and from "A Terror Tamed," in the Indianapolis Journal (June 17, 1903):

Dick Deadeye was a bandit bold, a bandit fierce was he, who held up stages, trains and things here in the West countree.


'Deadeye' as a noun and as a stand-alone adjective

During World War II, a U.S. infantry division acquired the nickname "the deadeyes" on account of their shooting accuracy. From Orlando Davidson, J. Carl Willems & Joseph Kahl, The Deadeyes: The Story of the 96th Infantry Division [combined snippets]:

The term "Deadeyes" came into circulation in the early years of the division but the 96th was not identified in print by that name until November, 1944, on Leyte. The division's first daily newspaper was being organized and Major Daniel W. Millsaps, Jr., its editor, received authorization from Genera;l Bradley to call it "The Deadeye Dispatch." By that time an impressive total of defunct enemy offered concrete evidence that Bradley's men knew how to handle their shooting irons and from that day on, the 96th was the Deadeye Division.

A Wikipedia article about the 96th Sustainment Brigade (formerly the 96th Infantry Division) notes that the 96th Division was created in the waning days of World War I, so it is possible, given the remark in The Deadeyes that "The term 'Deadeyes' came into circulation in the early years of the division," that the division's nickname goes back to the late 1910s or early 1920s. I haven't been able to find any source identifying the exact period when the nickname came into use, however.

The first match I've been able to find for dead-eye as a simple adjective meaning "having extremely accurate aim" is from "Charley Is in Idaho," in the Anaconda [Montana] Standard (December 2, 1892):

Out from Yellowstone and into a wild romantic region he had a dispute with a bear, which for several moments indicated a bad result with Bruin or Charley, but the result of a few dead-eye pistol shots the latter wilted and a three-mile ride to get out of beardom brought him to the camp of Ambrose Oates, to whom his experience was related in cool confidence.


Other, probably unrelated types of 'deadeye'

As bib notes in the question above, a much-earlier meaning of deadeye is a rounded block of very hard and heavy wood pierced with three holes and used as a forerunner of the pulley to take up the slack of shrouds ("one of the ropes leading usu. in pairs from a ship's mastheads to give lateral support to the masts," according to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary). The Eleventh Collegiate dates deadeye in this sense to 1748.

Daedeye also appears in the slang sense of "blockhead" in Herman Mellville, White-Jacket (1850, but referring to Melville's experience aboard the USS United States during 1843 and 1844):

No sooner did the bumpkin feel himself at ease, than he launched out, as usual, into tremendous laudations of whalemen; declaring that whalemen alone deserved the name of sailors. Jack stood it some time; but when Tubbs came down upon men-of-war, and particularly upon main-top-men, his sense of propriety was so outraged, that he launched into Tubbs like a forty-two pounder.

"Why, you limb of Nantucket! you train-oil man! you sea-tallow strainer! you bobber after carrion! do you pretend to vilify a man-of-war? Why, you lean rogue, you, a man-of-war is to whalemen, as a metropolis to shire-towns, and sequestered hamlets. Here's the place for life and commotion; here's the place to be gentlemanly and jolly. And what did you know, you bumpkin! before you came on board this Andrew Miller? What knew you of gun-deck, or orlop, mustering round the capstan, beating to quarters, and piping to dinner? Did you ever roll to grog on board your greasy ballyhoo of blazes? Did you ever winter at Mahon? Did you ever 'lash and carry?' Why, what are even a merchant-seaman's sorry yarns of voyages to China after tea-caddies, and voyages to the West Indies after sugar puncheons, and voyages to the Shetlands after seal-skins—what are even these yarns, you Tubbs you! to high life in a man-of-war? Why, you dead-eye! I have sailed with lords and marquises for captains; and the King of the Two Sicilies has passed me, as I here stood up at my gun. Bah! ...

Another slang meaning of deadeye is gin, according to J.S. Farmer * W.S. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1891):

DEADY (modern American, DEAD-EYE), subs. (old).—Gin; a special brand of full-proof spirit, also known as STARK NAKED (From Deady, a well-known gin-spinner.} [Citations from 1819 nd 1834 omitted.]

And a third meaning is evident in "Original 'Deadwood Dick' Ill" in the Bemidji [Minnesota] Daily Pioneer (March 15, 1910):

Venice, Cal[ifornia], March 15.—Richard Bullock, the original "Deadwood Dick," is seriously ill here at the home of Mayor Erskins, who was his sub-messenger twenty years ago on the bullion runs between Lead, S[outh] D[akota], and Omaha. Bullock is sixty-five years old. He has only one eye and that affliction gave him the nickname "Deadeye" before he came to own his latest sobriquet.

Although any of these other meanings may have inspired dead-eye as applied to a particular person, none seems necessary to account for the sharpshooting sense of the term.


Conclusions

Newspaper searches turn up instances of "Deadeye Dick" as the personification of a marksman as early as 1894 (although "Dead-eye Dick" as an outlaw character has a lively history without particular reference to the character's prowess with a gun), and of dead-eye as a stand-alone adjective with a similar meaning as early as 1892. These sources give no account of the origin of the term, but it seems reasonable to connect it in its sharpshooting sense to the notion of taking "dead aim" at a target, meaning, perhaps, aim that will result in the target's death. (The term dead aim goes back at least to 1835, although in that instance the aim is a direction of travel by a person, not a projectile.)

But dead as an adjective can mean a number of things besides "deadly"—including (according to the Eleventh Collegiate) unmoving (as in "dead center of a lathe"), unerring or exact (as in "dead center of a target"), irrevocable (as in "a dead loss"), complete or absolute (as in "dead silence"), and all-out (as in "a dead run"). To these we may add dead in the sense of "unaided by precision instruments," as in "dead reckoning"a term that goes back to 1613, according to the Eleventh Collegiate. For such a seemingly inert state, dead has a very lively array of meanings.

  • I was looking forward to your (inevitable, and inevitably comprehensive) answer, and I was not disappointed. You earned a +1 for the WW2 research alone. Too bad no one can seem to find authoritative material on the origins of the term, though everyone seems to be in agreement that it arises from "dead aim" and "dead on". – Dan Bron May 10 '16 at 0:31
  • @DanBron: I'm not entirely sold on the "dead aim" explanation, though it does make intuitive sense (and though I do put it forward in my answer). As my revised conclusion argues, "dead" is an extremely lively adjective, with multiple established and slang meanings. Etymologically that creates a mare's nest of possibilities in which one sense begets a somewhat (or not very) similar sense, and eventually so many competing possible sources exist that a meaning may not have a single identifiable parent. In any event, I can't find an authoritative account of the origin of this sense of deadeye. – Sven Yargs May 10 '16 at 1:21
  • +1 WOW! Great research and a lot closer to running it down. So many of the dead references tend to the opposite of sharp or exact (including most that connect to the nautical). But you get us a lot closer to the connection with dead as exact, although the basis that derivation still seems to elude us (and as Dan says, that may be a separate question). – bib May 10 '16 at 1:44
  • Just a comment that the dead center of something that revolves, such as a lathe, is the (imaginary) fixed point that does not move - it is dead. Everything moves around it, but it is fixed. – Drew May 10 '16 at 2:23
1

An educated guess: A particular type of deadeye was called the bull's eye. It is most likely that the former came to be used for a sharp shooter that often hit the bull's eye.

The slang meaning is quite recent and very rare in BE, is found in AE since 1940, usually associated with 'shot', which suggests that the meaning is not referred to to blinked eye of the shooter but to the target.

1990: "This barkeep, Sam Lewis, was known to be a hothead and a deadeye shot with his Marlin.44, could shoot a man's bung hole out so clean he'd wonder if he might of cut a fart."

  • Interesting theory, but for the bounty, I'm looking for definitive answers based on historical evidence. (And for folk theology, I prefer my own, though your "dead on the eye" definitely has merit.) – Dan Bron May 9 '16 at 14:35
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The term came into origin early for archers that could hit a knight in full suit of armor. Moderate breast plates stopped bullets at intermediate distances. Good plate armor stopped crossbow bolts. Many full suits of armor had only slits for the eyes and the only practical killing point for archers and slug throwing weapons.

  • 2
    How do we know what you're saying is true? Can you add some kind of authoritative support to your answer? Otherwise there's no way to know if it's true or just another instance of folk etymology (i.e. BS). – Dan Bron May 9 '16 at 23:38
  • Harald a King was slain in the Battle of Hastings by an arrow in the eye. September, 12 1066. – R.St. May 10 '16 at 0:21
  • That comment doesn't tell me much. Was the idiom "deadeye" coined during the Battle of Hastings, 1066? If so, can you edit your answer to provide some kind of reference for that fact? If not, how does the fact that some guy died a millennium ago relate to English usage today? – Dan Bron May 10 '16 at 0:23

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