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Many times now, I've heard native English speakers (from the USA and Canada) say "he came back from the dead" instead of "from the death" when they mean resurrection.

Dead is not a noun, so I don't see why the sentence is correct.

Evidently dead can be a noun that means dead people but that isn't the case here.

Any reason?

edit: I didn't expect that this would spark so much interest; it just came up again in an online video I was watching.

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    "he came back from the dead" = "he came back from (among all) the dead (persons)" = "he came back from (where all) the dead ((supposedly) are)" HTH. Why complicate. BTW, the dead is a noun phrase. – Kris Aug 2 '18 at 7:32
  • @Kris I'm sorry you are mistaken and it's a mistake that I also made initially. The dictionary references, I cited, prove this. "I have come back from the dead" means "I have come back to life" Now where you die may be in the place where the dead reside but that is different. Do you see how "the dead" in the previous sentence has a different meaning? This is not the case of the definite article being used with an adjective to make a category, e.g. "the sick", "the rich", "the idle", "the Swiss" etc. In the OP's example, it is about death. – Mari-Lou A Aug 2 '18 at 9:42
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    @MariLouA Oh come on, that's empty argumentation. Kris is right: "The dead" is a noun category after all (read the accepted answer). It harks back to a time when most people thought the dead went somewhere after they died, and might come back to haunt them later. However, since you can't literally come back to life, "the dead" almost always used figuratively. – Spencer Aug 2 '18 at 11:08
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    @Mari-LouA, as abundantly demonstrated by Mr Christ below, you're just wrong on this. It's too late to edit out the last sentence in your comment, so you're better off just clearing it. For what it's worth to life is not a verbal phrase either. It's not an infinitive misspelling of 'live'; it's a locative adverb about sth going from among the dead things to life: the living things or the place of the living things. [edit: Hey! Good call. =) Better to just fix the thing than take things personally or go ad hom, though.] – lly Aug 4 '18 at 14:52
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    «but that isn't the case here»: why not, given as it is exactly the case? – DaG Aug 5 '18 at 16:36
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For one thing, you cannot say “came back from the death”: death takes no article here. Death works as an abstract condition not a particular instance of one, much like life or hope or joy or sadness or despair. You would not lose the hope; you would just lose hope in general. You would not return from the sadness — unless it were the sadness that befell you upon learning the hour of your death and subsequent loss of hope leading to despair. It doesn't normally get to be a particular instance of a death, let alone of the death. English uses the zero article in many places, and that part is much too big a topic for this question.

But for the main thing, here dead is a noun, usually a plural one.

Tennyson wrote:

Nor canst thou show the dead are dead.

Note please the plural concord with the verb are.

But the phrase “from the dead” is special. It arose from translating the New Testament. The OED says of it:

B. n.

  1. a. singular. One who is dead, a dead person. Formerly with a, and with possessive dead's (dedes, dedis).

    b. plural the dead.

    c. from the dead [originally translating Latin a mortuis, Greek ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν in the New Testament.] : from among those that are dead; hence nearly = from death.

Even Old English did this. The Lindisfarne Gospels written back around 950 had John 2:22 begin with this is Old English:

Miððy uutudlice ariseð from deadum,

Which in the Early Modern English of the KJV ran:

When therefore he was risen from the dead,

And in the Vulgate ran like this in Latin:

Cum ergo resurrexisset a mortuis,

So this phrase “from the dead” has been used that way ever since. It’s been in English since before you could even recognize English as English: “ariseth from deadum” looks almost silly to us these days.

While adjectives can be nominalized and used as a singular to mean the part with that property (like in the dead of night) or in the plural meaning people who have that property (like in the good, the bad, and the ugly; or judging the quick and the dead; or saying that the poor will be with you always), when you see something that looks like it’s acting like a noun, it probably is as good as “a real one” for nominal purposes like these.

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    @Kris Some people haven't been speaking it all their lives you know. – tchrist Aug 2 '18 at 7:36
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    @Alexis_FR_JP “‘from the dead’ doesn't mean ‘from someone who is dead’ but ‘from the state of being dead’” — You assert this without evidence, and in fact ignoring existing evidence to the contrary. In fact, as this answer shows, it does mean precisely this: “from [amongst] the dead [people]”, which is close to the literal translation from Latin (and Ancient Greek). – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 8:38
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    Just to add to the already very well explained: the original greek, unlike the english translation, shows clearly that it's a plural (genitive plural) without needing any verb. So, if in the translation we choose "corpse", which unlike "dead" have a distinct plural, we'd have: "from the corpses". – Gerardo Furtado Aug 2 '18 at 9:20
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    @MrLister Sounds plausible but given the original Latin and Ancient Greek, that’s unlikely. “mortuis” and “νεκρῶν” both literally translate to “those that are dead”/“the dead ones”. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 10:21
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    @psmears You left out “ἀπὸ”, which means “[away] from” and takes a genitive; so the whole sentence fragment definitely translates as “from those that are dead”, not “of …” (it could alternatively mean “because of …” but this doesn’t make sense here). – Konrad Rudolph Aug 3 '18 at 14:58
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It's because in this phrase, "the dead" refers to the group, or class of beings that the person was among, before they came back. It is correct to say "he was among the dead", meaning "he was among dead people".

In the same way, you can say "I was at the Smith's house", and I have come back from the Smiths'. The bonus plural possessive is free of charge :)

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    @Mari-LouA No, it is referring to a group of people. It’s figurative: It’s about coming back from heaven/purgatory/wherever all the dead souls hangout. The phrase refers to somebody coming back after visiting (and having a lava lake side drink?) with those that have died. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 9:24
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    @Mari-LouA I’ve read them, and my comment merely rehashes tchrist’s answer (see also my comment there). Forgive me if this isn’t the case, but you seem not to understand what “figurative” means. Of course the phrase refers to resurrection (or something like it). But its way of expressing this is, figuratively, by referring to the dead people that the subject of the phrase is coming back from. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 9:45
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    @Mari-LouA I don’t understand what you want to say. “the phrase … is special” doesn’t mean that “the dead” in that phrase doesn’t refer to “the dead people”. It merely means that we have additional information in this particular case. And that additional information emphatically confirms that “the dead” in this phrase very much refers to “the dead people”. It’s the literal translation from the Latin and Ancient Greek original. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 10:10
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    @KonradRudolph It's true the etymology and biblical meaning of "from the dead" are "from the [group of] dead people". But I'd say it has become enough of an English idiom that this is no longer necessarily the intended or commonly understood meaning. Someone who doesn't believe there is any meaningful community of dead people can use the phrase anyway. And it can be used figuratively of a non-living thing, like a piece of hardware, a meme, etc. – aschepler Aug 2 '18 at 12:35
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    @aschepler I’m sorry — I’m baffled how my comment can be so thoroughly misunderstood, given that I stated explicitly that the use is figurative. Of course (almost?) nobody using that phrase thinks that the subject of it literally walked out of a place full of literally dead bodies. Yes, it’s an idiom. That doesn’t change what is referred to, especially in the context of OP asking about the grammatical meaning of “dead”. Grammatically, it is unambiguously a noun phrase, standing for “the dead people”, not “death”. Debating this simply makes no sense. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 2 '18 at 12:51
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In Oxford Living Dictionaries, scroll the page until you reach Phrases, and there you'll find the following fixed phrase

from the dead
From a state of death.

  • ‘according to Christian belief, Jesus rose from the dead three days later’
  • ‘Spain's most infamous spy returned from the dead Monday, five years after his sister published a death notice.’

  • ‘With your bloodshot eyes and pale yellow skin, you look like you've just rose up from the dead.’

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDCE), which is a great source for learners, has the following entry

rise/come back/return from the dead
to become alive again after dying

  • “A few weeks later Patrick Ashby came back from the dead and went home to inherit the family house and fortune”
  • “Friends don't come back from the dead, Leila thought, rampaging through the corridor from the canteen.”

It is the phrase, or idiom if you prefer, that means “to come back to life”. The OP is correct in stating that its opposite should be “to come back from death” (without the article) but we don't say that, instead we use the fixed phrase ‘from the dead’.

from the dead
come back from the dead
1. Reanimated after death.
2. To reappear or regain popularity after a period of absence or decline

  • If you don't do exactly what I want at my funeral, I'll come back from the dead and harass you all!

If someone or something comes back from the dead or rises from the dead, they become active or successful again after a period of being inactive or unsuccessful.

  • After all, this was a company that, by all appearances, had risen from the dead.

From McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

rise from the dead and ‘rise from the grave’
Fig. to come back to life after being dead.

  • Albert didn't rise from the dead. He wasn't dead in the first place. The movie was about a teenager who rose from the grave and haunted his high school friends.
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    Hey Mari-Lou - upvote for research & citations instead of relying on your intuition... – Spike0xff Aug 2 '18 at 16:15
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Updated as an answer since I was told having this as a comment was incorrect usage:

I think you've gotten a lot of good answers here, but one more I'd like to throw in is that it IS grammatically correct to say "came back from death" but "the death" doesn't make as much sense grammatically since each death is specific to individuals (what I mean by that is how you die). "came back from their death" makes sense too. So you could say "they came back from the dead", "they came back from death" or "they came back from their death" and all would make sense!

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    It's like "he came back from his illness" which is used a lot more because it happens a lot more (more than one reported case). Here you wouldn't say "he came back from the ill" because ill people don't leave. – gnasher729 Aug 5 '18 at 11:26
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Well think of people in two groups, the living and the dead. Also think that as long as people can remember, the dead "went to another land" in mythology. Hence, to get revived is to "come back from the [land or state of] dead"

Why is not "come back from the Death?" There's only one Death, so there's no definite article.
What would be right is to say "come back from Death", but that's not really idiomatic. Sometimes ppl do say "conquered Death", or "came back from Death's door".

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    In the context, you might even want to refer to the two groups as "the quick and the dead" - which is exactly the wording used in the King James bible. ("Quick" in the old sense of "alive", rather than "speedy") – Martin Bonner Aug 3 '18 at 11:44
  • "He came back from Death" would mean you believe in a mythological creature called Death who takes all the dead people, and someone escaped. – gnasher729 Aug 5 '18 at 11:27
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"the dead" is a definitive adjective meaning "those (who are) dead." Definitive adjectives can be used like nouns. Nothing more needs to be said, as the quote means literally: "from those (who are) dead".

  • Welcome to ELU, please add a source to support your answer. – JJJ Aug 3 '18 at 5:33

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