It feels like there should be a story behind it, or perhaps a type of slang, but I can't find anything in various Web searches.


5 Answers 5


Dead here means utterly, absolutely, which is not a slang usage. Etymonline suggests that it hails from the 14th century, but does not explain whence it derived:

Used from 16c. in adj. sense of "utter, absolute, quite" (cf. dead drunk first attested 1590s; dead heat, 1796). As an adv., from late 14c. Dead on is 1889, from marksmanship.

I would guess the following: death -> permanence -> absoluteness. But this is all speculation. I doubt you'll ever find an authoritative history of this evolution.

  • 1
    The expressions dead drunk and dead quiet actually make sense for both meanings of dead. Since dead drunk was apparently first, it's possible this contributed to the coining of this expression. Dec 13, 2011 at 21:39
  • It's interesting that you mention it because I had written and considered adding a sentence or two on the possibility of dead drunk being the bridge between these two usages of dead. Now I think I'll leave it to the comments :)
    – Daniel
    Dec 13, 2011 at 21:47
  • 1
    And here is dead silent from 1753, well before the 1796 dead heat attestation in etymonline. Nov 15, 2012 at 22:06

In expressions like dead simple, dead easy, dead on, or dead right, dead is used as an adverb, meaning completely or extremely.

Etymonline indicates some of the history:

Used from 16c. in adj. sense of "utter, absolute, quite" (cf. dead drunk first attested 1590s; dead heat, 1796). As an adv., from late 14c. Dead on is 1889, from marksmanship.

  • A very common usage of dead in the same sense: "He came in dead last" Dec 14, 2011 at 1:29

Like most confusing idioms it's most likely someone's misunderstanding of a traditional idiom. Dead silent, dead drunk, and dead serious all make sense. Dead silent is because the dead are silent. Dead drunk because you're so drunk you behave like a dead person (falling down, not responding etc.) Dead serious because death is serious. My assumption is another example of people messing up other sayings. Sort of like "walking on egg shells" which was taken from "walking on eggs" which is about not breaking them.


It's very common to use dead meaning very in the north esp. Manchester. I'm Mancunian and I've always thought it came from "dead still" as in "hold completely still don't move", or "it's very quiet", or also "there's no wind at all", knowing how much we like to talk about the weather maybe the last one is the original?


"Dead" in Gaelic means basically "extreme", something like the slang phrase "to the max". So "you're dead right" means "you're extremely right", "dead ahead" means it's directly in front (of a ship's path for example - not even one degree to port or starboard).

The real New York street gang "The Dead Rabbits" (who were re-created in the film "Gangs of New York") got their name because...OK I'm not sure of the spelling, but "rabid" or "rabeed" in Gaelic meant a bad guy, a tough guy, and these extreme tough guys were called "dead rabeeds" by the other Irish immigrants.

  • Hi wjstix, welcome to EL&U. Please edit your answer to provide (1) an authoritative source for your definition of the meaning of dead in Gaelic, and (2) published evidence that demonstrates how the Gaelic word is is involved in the originof the phrase dead simple. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour. :-) Mar 5, 2019 at 22:43

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