What does “dead as a door nail” mean?
What does "deader than a doornail" mean?
I've read the word plenty of times but don't know the meaning to it.
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The phrase is deader than a doornail (or dead as a doornail).
It means utterly and completely dead -- either literally or figuratively. Or, as this site puts it:
“Dead as a doornail” (or, I suppose, “deader than a doornail”) means, of course, utterly and completely dead, whether figuratively (“The Congo treaty may now be regarded as being as dead as a doornail,” 1884) or literally defunct in the Monty Python Dead Parrot sense (“This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”).
This site speculates on its origin:
[The phrase] could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched. It sounds plausible, but whether it’s right or not we will probably never know.
The phrase means 'Dead beyond doubt'. To add strength and prevent theft, the nail was clinched on the inside, making it 'dead', or, unable to be re-used for the same purpose.
According to thefreedictionary,
dead; no longer in existence.
This may have sounded original in the 1300s, but it's probably something to avoid when writing today. In fact, a few websites, exhorting writers to avoid the trite and conjure some originality, specifically list this idiom as one to be avoided. The idiotic idioms page lists it as a cliché, right atop a long list of other overused expressions.
I remember my 7th-grade grammar teacher telling us to avoid clichés as well, as I believe "dead as a doornail" was one of the first examples she rattled off.
So, although you now know it means - well, dead - you should also note that the phrase itself is almost as lifeless as those alluded-to doornails.
This is an ancient expression: we have a reference to this dating back to 1350, and it also appears in the fourteenth-century work The Vision of Piers Plowman and in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Another expression, of rather later date, is as dead as a herring, because most people only saw herrings when they were long dead and preserved; there are other similes with the same meaning, such as dead as mutton, or dead as a stone.
A close-up of an ancient studded door, with a heavy door knocker. Dead enough for you?
But why particularly a doornail, rather than just any old nail? Could it be because of the repetition of sounds, and the much better rhythm of the phrase compared with the version without door? Almost certainly the euphony has caused the phrase to survive longer than the alternatives I’ve quoted. But could there something special about a doornail?
The usual reason given is that a doornail was one of the heavy studded nails on the outside of a medieval door, or possibly that the phrase refers to the particularly big one on which the knocker rested. A doornail, because of its size and probable antiquity, would seem dead enough for any proverb; the one on which the knocker sat might be thought particularly dead because of the number of times it had been knocked on the head.
But William and Mary Morris, in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, quote a correspondent who points out that it could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched. It sounds plausible, but whether it’s right or not we will probably never know.