Hello, Folks among the Living!
This time of year is all about celebrating the autumnal season of the natural cycle which brings the end of life to much of the trees and vegetation in regions located northward and southward a ways from the equator. The green vanishes from tree leaves and the birds start disappearing. In the home state of Everything Summer Camp—Wisconsin—you might say things get as dead as a doornail.
There’s no shortage of turns of phrases and old sayings for us to look into to find out why we say things like ‘Keep it up’ and ‘Don’t lose your head’. These sayings are deeply embedded into our everyday speech; you probably don’t even know it when you use one. Today we’re taking a look at the phrase ‘Dead as a Doornail’. What’s so dead about a doornail? you might ask.
You’re not alone.
Charles Dickens wondered the same thing on the first page of his classic ‘A Christmas Carol’: “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail," he wrote. "I don't…know…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...”
He brings up a good point. What exactly is so dead about a doornail? Why not a coffin nail? Well, the phrase goes back to 1350 in the carpentry trade. Back then, metal nails weren’t cheap. Most folks used wooden pegs—a much cheaper alternative to metal nails. The doors on wealthy homes, however, used nails with large heads to make the door stronger and able to open and close a thousand times without weakening.
The nails were so large that, when hammered, into the door, they would poke out the other side. Carpenters would then tap the protruding end to bend it flat against the wood. They called this ‘clinching’, and afterward the nail was rendered “dead” because it could never be used again.
Check back in when we return for another Adage Origin Blog post in November when we’ll take a look at our next Adage Origin Blog post. And, as always, thanks for reading!