You might come across the idiom “dead as a doornail” and be a little confused by what it means. This article will look at what it means and how to use it, as well as include a section about where it came from (which is always interesting to learn about).
What Does “Dead As A Doornail” Mean?
“Dead as a doornail” means that something is completely dead. It can work in both the literal or figurative sense but is more common in a figurative sense (i.e., “this agreement between us is as dead as a doornail, and you can do nothing to change that”).
The definition of “dead as a doornail,” according to The Cambridge Dictionary, is “to be clearly and obviously dead.”
Generally, we use it to talk about metaphorical things that are dead rather than people or animals. If we used it in the literal sense, many people would believe us to be insensitive, which is why we avoid doing so.
What Is The Origin Of “Dead As A Doornail”?
It might help you to learn more about where the phrase came from. Generally, if you’re having a hard time grasping it, it’s because you don’t know the origin.
“Dead as a doornail” comes from hammering a nail through a piece of timber. When you flatten the end (“clinch”) against the timber, it’s impossible to remove again, and the nail is said to be “dead.”
Traditionally, doornails were more common than screws. That meant that it was more likely people would use doornails to bolt onto pieces of timber and were more likely to “clinch” them, resulting in them being dead.
Once a doornail was clinched, there was no using it again. It was bent out of shape and impossible to remove from the piece of timber, which is the most plausible reason for “dead as a doornail” having the serious and definitive meaning about death that it has today.
Is It “Dead As A Doornail” Or “Deader Than A Doornail”?
“Dead as a doornail” is the correct version to use. It means that something is completely and totally dead. However, “deader than a doornail” is sometimes used as a comparative form to show that something is “more dead” than a doornail, but it’s rare.
We can look at this graph to showcase the difference between the two. Clearly, “dead as a doornail” is the more popular choice, and it has grown exponentially over the last two decades.
Many people prefer using “dead as a doornail” because it directly links to the original phrase. The original phrase is a simile (using the word “as” to describe one thing as another). It’s a language rule that we like to follow when using idioms such as this.
When we change it to “deader than a doornail,” we’re no longer using the original simile, and the meaning of the phrase is slightly different. “Deader than a doornail” is comparative, meaning the thing is dead beyond the point of a “dead” doornail, which seems to be less popular.
Examples Of How To Use “Dead As A Doornail” In A Sentence
We thought it was time to include some examples to help you understand when “dead as a doornail” is appropriate. Remember, we prefer using it in the figurative sense so that we’re not insensitive when talking about the literal death of people or animals.
“Dead as a doornail” means that something is dead beyond doubt, and there is no way for that thing to come back to life or be used again.
- We’re sorry, but this arrangement is dead as a doornail, and there’s not much we can do about that.
- Your son’s prospects are dead as a doornail now that he doesn’t put any effort into his schoolwork.
- I’ll make sure your career is dead as a doornail if you don’t come and work for me this instant!
- Their relationship is dead as a doornail, which is such a shame because I thought they were a great couple.
- Apparently, the charity is dead as a doornail because they lied about where the proceeds went.
- We’re sorry, but your talent show is dead as a doornail, and we’ll be taking it off the air by the end of the season.
- Your ideas are dead as a doornail, and we suggest you get more interesting ones before we get rid of you.
As you can see, we use “dead as a doornail” to talk about figurative or metaphorical “deaths” rather than literal ones. It’s best to refer to things that are no longer valid or useful.
“Dead As A Doornail” – Synonyms
If you’re unsure about the phrase, you might do well to learn a few synonyms or alternatives instead. We encourage you to play around with some of the following to see which ones work best for you:
- Dead beyond doubt
- Completely dead
- Six feet under
- Pushing up daisies
- Bit the dust
- Kicked the bucket
- Gave up the ghost
- Met their maker
All of these synonyms are great to talk about things dying (both literally and metaphorically). Some of them are alternative idioms, which work best in more metaphorical senses.
Does “Dead As A Doornail “And “Dead As A Doorknob” Mean The Same?
“Dead as a doornail” and “dead as a doorknob” mean the same thing. However, historically, “dead as a doorknob” isn’t correct and doesn’t have an official origin. It’s simply a misinterpretation of the phrase “dead as a doornail.”
While “dead as a doorknob” is incorrect, that doesn’t mean people don’t use it today.
You can see from this graph that, while rare, “dead as a doorknob” does have some recorded usage, especially in the last two decades.
Again, it’s not an officially recognized idiom. It’s simply a misconception of “dead as a doornail.” People who didn’t fully understand the origin of the phrase would use “doorknob” instead of “doornail” with the hope that they were synonymous.
You should stick to using “dead as a doornail” as most native speakers understand what it means and know that it’s the original phrase.