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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: In Passing, Part 3

This third article in a series of three investigates further the many uses of "dead," "death," and "die" in present-day vernacular, examining how these words have been altered over time.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Jean Hibben
Word Count: 1533 (approx.)
Labels: Death Record 
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One thing about genealogy, our work is always focused on the dead. So it is in this series of three articles on the word "dead" and its variations - "death" and "die" - that we investigate further the various phrases used in common English but that, in many cases, involve things either far from dead or that never lived in the first place.

What about the word "dead" in Latin? That is, "mort." You might recognize it as the first part of the word "mortgage." The second part of the word - "gage" - means, literally, "pledge." So a "mortgage," then, is a "dead pledge." Sounds rather terminal! But, in a way, it is. Some might think that if the homeowner fails to pay the mortgage, he/she is "dead." Not quite: in this situation, it is the property that becomes dead to the mortgage holder, once the debt is paid. Of course, if the lender fails to pay according to the contract, it is he/she who forfeits all rights to the property (his/her rights, then, being "dead") (Morris).

Our ancestors who were blazing trails and trying to survive in the wilderness frontier were no strangers to the muzzle-loading musket. One part of the weapon, the "pan," held the gunpowder that was ignited by flint, struck by the steel hammer when the trigger was pulled. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the gun one is positioned), the ignition sometimes resulted in nothing (especially if the powder was wet) (Hendrickson, p. 255). This is very likely the origin of the expression "dead pan" (Drake), but others are not so sure. Holt states that "pan" is another word for face (as of 1833) and, since "dead pan" (sometimes spelled as one word: "deadpan") means "expressionless," it would mean literally "dead face" (Hendrickson).

It might be supposed that if one's expression was "deadpan," he might "look like death warmed over." Hardly a compliment, even if we don't know what its origin is! Most of us understand this to mean that the person looks less than stellar, possibly sick or unkempt (Magnuson). One theory is that when we have our food fresh, it tends to look (and perhaps taste) its best, but when we have leftovers and reheat a previously enjoyed meal, it may look less appealing and possibly have a flavor to match. Thus, the person who looks like death (already something considered negative) warmed over (or "warmed up," according to the British), the result must be rather ghastly (Masakim).

Could it be that one who is thusly warmed would still be "dead meat"? This phrase, referring to one who is in so much trouble that his future is doubtful, likely comes from the fact that meat, in order to be eaten (at least in a civilized arena) ought to be dead (college fraternity brothers swallowing live goldfish notwithstanding). This idiom really is redundant, at least as far as the "meat" part is concerned (Shakespeare). It seems to me that "dead meat" is fairly synonymous with "dead duck," discussed in an earlier article; most of us would wish to be neither.

Is one who is "dead drunk" actually dead? The last article focused on the use of "dead" as a synonym for "complete" or "absolute," however, while a person who is "dead drunk" is likely to be completely drunk (as opposed to partly drunk?), the "dead" here more likely refers to the position of the drinker (or former drinker, as in this state he/she is probably no longer doing any active imbibing) (Spears). It is interesting to note that, along the lines of this same activity, the empty bottles that remain, following such a binge, are sometimes referred to as "dead men" or "dead soldiers." This is because, as one interpreter sees it, "the spirit has left the vessel" (both in the case of the bottle and the actual dead human being) (Castle). A reference to "dead men," in this context is found in 1738 in Polite Conversations by Swift (Hendrickson), so the term has been around for over 250 years.

Often, the drinking referred to in the previous paragraph occurs at a time when most of us (except the active drinkers) are asleep: the "dead of night." This is, of course, sometime in the middle of the night, but an exact span of time is unclear. Searches of various etymology dictionaries and websites either produce no reference or only the definition of the idiom, not why we use the word "dead" to mean the "middle." Night, being a time period, does not seem to me to be either living or dead; I am open to suggestions.

Another word that has an unclear origin, even though the meaning is fairly well understood, is "deadbolt" (as in a "deadbolt lock," not to be confused with "deadlock," which was discussed in a previous article). It is a lock bolt that requires a key or knob to open and close it (Glazier). But why use the term "dead" instead of, say, "secure"? Could it be that whatever is on the other side of the securely bolted door is "dead" to any intruder? Or possibly this is another example of substituting "dead" for "total" or "complete" and, in this instance, the door is totally and completely locked.

Sometimes "dead" can mean, well, "dead" (as the opposite of "live"). The nautical field has provided us with an example: "dead reckoning" (sometimes misconstrued to be "ded reckoning" in which "ded" is short for "deduced") (Berg). In this form of navigation, it is accomplished without assistance from stars (hence the "dead" reference; with astronomical aids, it would be "live" navigation), and the phrase has been adapted to various species as well as other manmade forms of transportation (air and automotive, to be specific) (Wikipedia, "Dead reckoning").

Finally, what about "deadline"? Most of us are familiar with the needs of various projects to have deadlines (dates by which they must be complete), but why this conjunction of those two words? This was harder to find than I expected, and context is the determining factor. In the military arena, "deadline" refers to a vehicle that is out of commission, requiring some sort of repair or maintenance. However, in the printing profession, this term refers to "a guide-line [or limit] marked on the bed of a printing press" (Green), which probably evolved into the time limit to get an article (such as this) turned in to the printer or publisher. In either case, the term is a form of professional jargon, with the word "dead" referring to things that are not operating or are the stopping point.

Like deadline, there are a number of situations where the word "dead" has a specific meaning within a particular field. Some examples of this would be "dead stick" (aeronautics), "dead man's hand" (poker), "dead time" (management), "dead stock" (agriculture), "deadman" (logging), "dead money" (finance), "on the dead" (theater) (Green, pp. 157-158), and on, and on, and on, to death. At this point, I'm sick to death of the phrases in our common day vernacular and would rather die than try to locate one more origin of one more phrase (well, that's a slight exaggeration, of course).

For genealogists, one meaning of death is the opportunity to get information on our ancestors. Some will even mortgage their homes to get the funds needed to do more research, almost as though they have a deadline to find as much as possible (perhaps they do: their own mortality). They follow a course of dead reckoning, often taking their research into the dead of night, throwing the deadbolt on the door to keep from being disturbed. They are concerned that if they report incorrect findings to other relatives, they will be dead meat. You can see them in the libraries, often with dead pan expressions and, sometimes after many, many hours at microfilm readers, looking like death warmed over. But, for many of these die-hard researchers, this is what makes them feel alive!


Berg, R. "Re: Knock 'em Dead." The Phrase Finder. April 12, 2001. Accessed August 12, 2009, from

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.

Glazier, Stephen. Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1998. Green, Jonathon. Dictionary of Jargon. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

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.

Magnuson, Wayne. English Idioms: Sayings & Slang. 2003. Accessed August 12, 2009, from

Masakim. "Death Warmed over." The Phrase Finder. Email reply to James Briggs, October 31, 2001. Accessed August 12, 2009, from

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective. Accessed August 12, 2009, from

Shakespeare, Steven. "Dead Meat: Why Humans Need Animals." Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, March 11, 2008. Accessed August 12, 2009, from ttp://

Spears, Richard A. NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co., 1990.

Wikipedia. "Dead Reckoning." Accessed August 4, 2009, from, 10 July 2009.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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