The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “death knell” overkill?

Q: I noticed a headline in the New York Times that said “Death Knell May Be Near for Public Election Funds.” Isn’t the phrase “death knell” redundant? My dictionary says “knell” indicates the end or failure of something. So it seems that “knell” alone would be sufficient. What do you think?

A: A knell is an ominous sound or a slow and solemn tolling of a bell, as if for a funeral or as a signal of disaster or destruction. Since it isn’t exclusively a funeral thing, it’s not really redundant to say “death knell.”

You’re right in that it does seem to signal the end of something. But I think most people would find “knell” all by itself a little puzzling, no? Just my opinion.

The word “knell,” by the way, is very, very old. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 10th century (it was spelled “cnyl” in those days). The OED’s first reference for “death knell” is in “The Lord of the Isles” (1814), a poem by Sir Walter Scott: “I must not Moray’s death-knell hear!”

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