The Grammarphobia Blog

Dead in the water

Q: I’m writing in defense of “dead in the water,” an expression you criticized on the air as an example of overused business-speak. If a becalmed sailing ship can be “dead in the water,” a becalmed business project can be likewise described.

A: Yes, “dead in the water” is really evocative in the maritime sense, but it’s overworked in the office, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments and those of others defending this usage in the workplace.

Interestingly, I searched the Oxford English Dictionary, but couldn’t find a single published reference for “dead in the water.” I think the OED lexicographers have been asleep (or rather becalmed) on this one.

I did, however, find citations going back to around 1000 for “dead” (or “deada” in Old English) used as an adjective to describe motionless air or water.

Here’s a citation about the life of a trout from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653): “As he growes stronger, he gets from the dead, still water, into the sharp streames and the gravel.”

The OED also has several references for the phrase “dead water” (water without a current), dating from a 1601 English translation from Pliny: “A standing poole or dead water.”

As for the use of “dead” in a business sense, the OED’s first citation is from a 1601 report of “complaints against dead Trade.” And here’s one from the publishing world: Samuel Johnson, in a 1758 essay in The Idler, writes of publishers that “never had known such a dead time.”

And now, I’ve come to a dead stop!

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