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Oxford dictionary defines wouldn't be seen (or caught) dead as meaning:

informal Used to express strong dislike for a particular thing.

I am wondering about both the conceptual and textual origins of this phrase.

As far as I can tell, the conceptual origin is that even if the subject were dead, and thus had no control over what happened to them, they still would not do something. This explanation is also offered here:

It means, of course, "Even if I were dead I wouldn't..." The illogic behind this is part of the charm—it demonstrates the extremity of the feeling being expressed, as well as lending a touch of the picturesque.

An alternative conceptual explanation is offered by @cobaltduck:

Suppose I was somehow convinced to do X, but while doing it I had a heart attack or was struck by lightning, or... When my body is discovered, the evidence around me makes it clear I had been doing X at the time I died. I won't hear the derisive remarks, won't suffer the embarrassment, won't feel any of the repercussions. Yet that is how people will remember me, "Cobaltduck died while Xing." I do not want that to happen, therefore I will not X.

The idea is that the subject won't do something because they fear their corpse will be found in the act of doing it, thus shaming them posthumously.

Alternately, and less plausibly, some people conjecture that the phrase is linked to the phrase dead to rights (for example, here).

There are thus multiple viable explanations of the phrase. But is there any evidence that one should be favored over the other?


I am also curious to know about first textual occurrences of the idiom and its variants. For example, did "wouldn't be seen dead" take off before "wouldn't be caught dead"?

Lastly, I am curious to know if this is chiefly an American or British idiom?


Given that there seems to be no definitive answers elsewhere on the internet, I figured I'd ask the questions here.

  • 2
    As a native (American) English speaker, I would explain it as "even if I were dead, you couldn't get me to do that" - which is obviously not literal. For instance, "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a skirt": if you're dead, you really don't have any say in the matter (for your funeral). I don't have any links, which is why this is a comment, not an answer. – Ghotir Aug 16 '16 at 13:54
  • 2
    Somebody would not be caught dead: - someone would never do or wear something - I wouldn't be caught dead doing ads for that company. My father wouldn't have been caught dead in a white suit. idioms.thefreedictionary.com/would+not+be+caught+dead – user66974 Aug 16 '16 at 13:58
  • 4
    This is an interesting idiom and I'm curious to see a good answer explaining its origin. But you don't ask for its origin; you ask for its meaning, which can be found in many dictionaries. If you want to make this a good question, consider asking about its origin and how its contemporary meaning developed. Also, you might demonstrate some research or thought by linking to some etymology or giving your own speculative etymology of it. – GoldenGremlin Aug 16 '16 at 13:59
  • 5
    Interesting. I've always interpreted the expression as meaning: Suppose I was somehow convinced to do X, but while doing it I had a heart attack or was struck by lightning, or... When my body is discovered, the evidence around me makes it clear I had been doing X at the time I died. I won't hear the derisive remarks, won't suffer the embarrassment, won't feel any of the repercussions. Yet that is how people will remember me, "Cobaltduck died while Xing." I do not want that to happen, therefore I will not X. – cobaltduck Aug 16 '16 at 14:50
  • 1
    Interesting question! I've always thought about it in the first sense, i.e. that even if I were dead (and thus unable to argue) I would still oppose the activity. Have you thought about its connection to the phrase "over my dead body?" – L. Willmer Aug 16 '16 at 17:17
2

A possible nautical origin

The (ever-popular) nautical origin should come, and go, first, not least because it also seems to be the earliest of candidates approximating the sense of the expression '[somebody would not be caught|seen|found] dead [doing something|being somewhere]' (hereafter WNCD):

Within a few cables of her lee-beam was the "light-green water, and the wind and swell setting her fast towards, it" Not a moment was to be lost. "Caught dead upon the weather-side of a reef," the ship "lay like a log upon the water." "Sail had to be made," he writes, "and way given to her before we could stay...."

(From A memoir of Capt. W. T. Bate, R. N., Rev. John Baillie, 1859. Emphasis mine.)

Here the sense is "without forward motion", "dead in the water", "unable to steer". While any sailor would loathe being so "caught dead", and the possible nautical origin deserves a mention, I have difficulty reconciling this 1858 use with the later sense of WNCD, not least because it expresses that something detestable has happened or might happen to somebody, while WNCD expresses the obverse, that somebody does or would detest something.


Findings

From that stopping point, my analysis becomes more tentative. Other than the negative element of the first finding, the following bulleted points are supported under the heading Evidence from press corpora, below:

  • Although the WNCD expression was in use at least 32 years prior to 1900, none of the turn-of-the-century slang and dialect references I checked mention it.
  • In my examination of popular press uses, the 'found dead' and 'caught dead' forms of the expression appeared earlier (1868, 1872) than the 'seen dead' form (1901).
  • The textual evidence available to me indicates WNCD was probably originally an Americanism; the earliest instances I found are all from American sources. It should be noted, however, that my colloquial resources are predominantly American.
  • No evidence indicates that 'caught dead to rights' sponsored the development of WNCD. Although 'caught dead to rights' appears earlier than WNCD, the first form of WNCD I uncovered was the 'found dead' form (1868), which does not fit with 'dead to rights'. One hybrid does appear, where 'caught dead' is used as an abridgement of 'caught dead to rights', but it appears at a much later date (copyrighted 1889). Additionally, the early sense of 'dead to rights' is the positive 'completely, certainly', which is at odds with the negative sense of WNCD.
  • It is a plausible theory that WNCD is a semantic development of forms of the 'dead or alive' expression. The common collocation of 'dead' and 'alive' dovetails with the 'found dead', 'caught dead', and 'seen dead' collocations, semantically ("conceptually") and temporally. WNCD expresses the negative to a chorus of "found dead or alive" (beginning in 1828; this date and the next two from Elephind), "seen dead or alive" (1838), and "caught dead or alive" (1862); that is, '[I|he|she|they] would not want to be [found|caught|seen] dead [or alive] [doing something|being somewhere]'. (Note that the familiar "Wanted: Dead or Alive" is a later development--the earliest attestation in the Elephind corpus of popular press is from Australia in 1876.)

Dated lexical sources

WNCD is dated to the first half of the 1900s in The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer:

caught dead, wouldn't be
Also, wouldn't be seen dead. Would have nothing to do with, detest, as in I wouldn't be caught dead in that outfit, or He'd not be seen dead drinking a cheap wine. This hyperbole is always put negatively. [Colloquial; first half of 1900s]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. S.v. "caught dead, wouldn't be." Retrieved August 17 2016 from http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/caught+dead%2c+wouldn%27t+be.)

In OED Online, WNCD is attested from 1924-1966, and appears as

Colloq. phr. (I, etc.) wouldn't be seen (or found) dead in, with: (I shall) have nothing to do with (something or someone); (I) hate, detest.

["dead, adj., n., and adv.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/47615?rskey=WsH8K8&result=1&isAdvanced=true (accessed August 17, 2016).]

Observing that both the OED and AHDICA give the 'seen dead' form of WNCD, but the OED also gives only the 'found dead' form while AHDICA also gives only the 'caught dead' form, it seems likely that 'found' is the more likely idiom for the WNCD phrase in BrE, and 'caught' the more likely idiom in AmE.


Evidence from press corpora

All images (except as noted individually) are provided via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Lib. of Congress.


Early 'found dead' attestation:

wncd2

(Memphis daily appeal. (Memphis, Tenn.), 10 Sept. 1868.)

wncd3

(Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 27 April 1870.)

wncd4

(The New daily appeal. volume (Carson City, Nev.), 10 Sept. 1872.)


Early 'caught dead' attestation:

wncd5

(The weekly Caucasian. (Lexington, Lafayette County, Mo.), 07 Dec. 1872.)

wncd7

(The Ottawa free trader. (Ottawa, Ill.), 07 Feb. 1874.)

wncd6

(Alexandria gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.), 17 July 1874.)


'Caught dead' as abridgement of 'caught dead to rights' (image from Google Books):

wncd10

(From "The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson", The Century, Volume 39, 1890.)


Early 'seen dead' attestation:

wncd8

(The Kalispell bee. (Kalispell, Mont.), 11 July 1901.)

wncd9

(The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 11 Feb. 1913.)

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