The Grammarphobia Blog

Dead as a doornail

Q: I hope you may be able to provide me with some insight regarding the phrase “dead as a doornail.” I believe it first appeared in Shakespeare, but how might a doornail convey deadness?

A: Although Shakespeare does use “dead as a door nayle” in Henry VI, Part 2 (1594), William Langland used the expression hundreds of years earlier in Piers Plowman (1362): “Fey withouten fait is febelore then nought, / And ded as a dore-nayl.”

In case you’re wondering, doornails (or door-nails) are large-headed nails once used to strengthen or decorate doors. The Oxford English Dictionary says we don’t see much of them anymore except in alliterative phrases (like “dead as a doornail”).

What, you ask, does a doornail have to do with death? There are several theories.

One is that the knocker on ancient doors would strike the doornail in question (perhaps fatally?), but the OED says that there’s  “no evidence” this is the source of the expression.

Another suggestion is that nails are inanimate—that is, dead. And still another is that nails are considered dead once used because it’s hard to reuse them, though we’ve resuscitated a good number of those nails over the years.

Still another theory is that the expression refers to clinching (or clenching), the practice of securing a nail by hammering it through the wood and bending the sharp end flat. The doornails on old doors were clinched, thus difficult to reuse.

The technique is sometimes referred to as dead-nailing, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phase Origins, because a clinched nail cannot be easily removed.

Although this idea seems to make sense, we can’t find any OED citations in which clinching is referred to as dead-nailing. We’d have expected to see some sign of the connection in the 14th century, when Langland used the expression.

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