dead as a doornail
From Middle English ded as dore-nail.
One of the earliest usages in English is in William Langland's poem Piers Plowman A. i. 161 "Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl", though it is unlikely this is Langland's invention. It also appears in the English William of Palerne l. 628 "For but ich haue bote of mi bale‥I am ded as dore-nail" and in the alliterative debate poem Parliament of the Three Ages "Dede als a dore-nayle doune was he fallen" 65. Both of these texts are of uncertain date, and may predate Langland's usage.
One plausible explanation is that doors were built using only wood boards and hand-forged nails: the nails were long enough to dead nail the (vertical) wooden panels and (horizontal) stretcher boards securely together, so they would not easily pull apart. This was done by pounding the protruding point of the nail over and down into the wood. A nail that was bent in this fashion (and thus not easily pulled out) was said to be "dead", thus dead as a doornail.
- (simile) Unquestionably dead. Used for both inanimate objects and once living beings.
- I picked up the phone, but the line was dead as a doornail.
- We finally found John's cat run over in the next road. It was as dead as a doornail.
- 1843, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, stave 1,
- Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
- Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
- “Dead as a doornail” in Michael Quinion, Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books in association with Penguin Books, 2004, ISBN 978-1-58834-219-5.
- ^ G M Trevelyan (1944) English Social History