When I decided to explore this issue, I asked a number of people for their ideas of phrases that included "dead" or "death" and was amazed at how many we use, many of them meaning essentially the same thing. For that reason, this is a two-part article that will explore as many references to these words as I can efficiently include, until the matter is, well, dead. Please don't email me with any more . . . I am already "buried" in these.
When we say that something (or someone?) is "as dead as a doornail," what is the connection between lifelessness and nails, of any kind, which, as far as I can tell, never had life to begin with? For many of us, life without a doorbell, to announce one's presence at the door, is unknown, but for our ancestors, especially prior to electricity, the way of calling attention to oneself as a visitor was to use a knocker attached to the door. Under the knocker was a metal plate, affixed to the door with one or more nails. When the visitor failed to get attention with a simple knock, a more assertive approach was likely, and the nails holding the metal plate would become quite worn in the onslaught, often having to be replaced due to their no longer being effective in holding the plate in place. Such nails, with no life left, would be considered useless and, in referring to anything similarly without value or life, would be termed "dead as a doornail" (Garrison, p. 119). While this makes sense, there are others who state that the "doornail" is the plate the knocker hits (with the same result: lots of abuse, making it, eventually, useless) (Castle, p. 71).
William Wagner of Virginia, himself quite acquainted with the tools and terms of carpentry, has another take on the subject: "dead-nailing." This term refers to the act of "clinching" a nail: hammering it so that it cannot easily be removed. Nails used for doors have particularly large heads, making them easy to clinch (and, perhaps, difficult for someone to remove from the outside, for example, in an effort to gain unwanted entry). Once "dead-nailed," the object, even if removed, cannot be used again (Morris & Morris, p. 170). The doornail analogy has also been compared to other "dead as" similes. "Dead as a dodo" clearly references something that is not only dead, but now extinct—though here the term is also used to refer to one who is stupid as opposed to deceased (Hendrickson, p. 194). "Dead as a stone" and even "dead as mutton" (as opposed to a sheep, which might well still be alive) are suggested to be synonymous with the doornail deadness. "Dead as a herring" (presumably because most people's contact with herring is after it has gone through the preserving process, causing it to be heavily salted with no life possible) is also suggested (Quinon, pp. 96-97), but others use the phrase "dead herring" (leaving out the "as"), in reference to someone who has little or no character or personality. This metaphor for a dull person is attributed to the lifelessness of a herring as soon as it is removed from the water; even fishermen seldom see a living herring (Mordock & Korach, p. 171).
Let us continue with the animal kingdom for a moment; horses also enter into the "dead" terminology. This creature, which many of our ancestors relied on for both work around the property and transportation to town or anywhere else one would want to go, was a necessity for early Americans, and when the horse died, everything came to a standstill. Nothing was as worthless as a dead horse, and virtually nothing was felt as strongly as the lack of one's essential steed. It is not surprising, then, that the analogy of a dead issue, such as a measure that was brought before Parliament, was compared to "flogging a dead horse." To the one for whom the issue was no longer pertinent, all the talk in the world would not revive it any more than beating a deceased horse would have in resuscitating it (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 152). While the first known use of this phrase was by John Bright, the British orator/politician, in reference to the Reform Bill of 1867, the term not only remained long after the vote (in which the bill passed), it even crossed the pond, becoming "to beat a dead horse" (Hendrickson, p. 256).
Now, beating a dead horse should not be confused with "deadbeat." This term, dating back only to 1821, refers to a person who is essentially worthless. It is surmised that it initially meant a person who was literally exhausted and nearly finished with life but, by 1875, it became slang for a person who was down and out and whose ethics were dead (Holt, p.73). Another explanation for this term comes from the sound of a drum when the skin is no longer taut: the beat is "dead"; likewise, the deadbeat refuses to meet his obligations and fails to conform (Drake, p. 85). Often this term was used to describe a hobo or other panhandler; someone who would expect to get something for nothing (Hendrickson, p. 194).
Speaking of getting something for nothing, another term with the "dead" prefix comes to mind: "deadhead." Yes, today when someone is declared a "Deadhead," it refers to his/her devotion to the rock group, the Grateful Dead (Mordock & Korach, pp.5-6), but the term dates back much farther. While it most often refers to someone getting a free pass, there is some controversy about its actual origin. Some believe it refers to the freeloader (deadbeat?) who rides a train without paying the fare. Since the conductor would count the heads of the passengers to be sure there were enough tickets to represent all of those who were riding his train, any overage were considered "deadheads" (ironically, corpses on the trains - the true dead heads - were also required to have tickets, as well as living "companions"; without a live sponsor, dead travelers - presumably in coffins - had to pay double fare) (Castle, p. 72).
Perhaps with this as the premise, eventually, the train with an empty car was said to be hauling a "deadhead": a car that was not really paying for itself since there were no cash customers aboard (Garrison, p. 328). Similarly, the engineer who is "deadheading" is driving a train with no passengers (Hendrickson, p. 194). But long before the days of railroading, the term "deadhead" was common in the theater: this was the person who was permitted to watch the entertainment without charge (in ancient Pompeii, the use of tiny skulls as "passes" identified such individuals) (Holt, p. 73).
Continuing with the comparison of the term "dead" with "useless," the old proverb "never waste powder on a dead duck" refers to the futility of pumping good ammunition into something that is already finished off. Over time and usage, this has been shortened to "dead duck," meaning something already used up or worthless. Of course, this just begged to be compared to the "not quite finished" entity known, at least in politics, as the "lame duck" (i.e., not dead yet) (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp. 42-43).
"Dead," then can be a euphemism for worthless or providing no benefit to others. But it can also mean a person who has placed himself apart from others. This would be its meaning in the phrase "he is dead to the world." While this originated with religion—the person who puts aside all worldly things in order to dedicate himself and his life to God, thus becoming "dead to the world" (but not to the Lord)—it has come to mean "unconscious" or "unaware" (Scorpio Tales).
We have just begun to explore the many terms in which death takes on new meaning. For genealogists, the dead are precisely what we are seeking. We might feel like dead ducks when we cannot locate that elusive ancestor. While we are deep in research in the library, we are dead to the world. Our not-so-sympathetic family and friends may accuse us of beating a dead horse in our attempts to find every last bit of information about our forebears, but our goal is to be thorough and not be a deadbeat. Nor do we attempt to be deadheads; we pay for the documents we copy (sometimes to the chagrin of anyone else with whom we share a bank account). And, until we believe the research angle we are taking is as dead as a doornail, we will not stop until we have found everything there is to locate.
Castle. Why Do We Say It? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions, and Cliches We Use. Secaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985.
Drake, Paul. What Did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003.
Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings: How More Than 400 Colorful & Familiar Expressions Originated and Developed. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1986.
Funk, Charles Earle. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper & Row, 1948, 1985.
Garrison, Webb. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.
Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.
Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where They Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.
Morris, William, & Morris, Mary. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Quinon, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
Scorpio Tales. Diversions. Accessed August 3, 2009, from http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/sayindex.htm.