Today let’s talk about the phrase “dead as a doornail.” Have you ever heard this expression before? My sources tell me that it’s a very old phrase; it was found in a piece of writing from the 14th century!
Shakespeare used the phrase in his play Henry VI Part II, from 1592. The full usage:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead
as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.
Here the character Jack Cade, the leader of a rebellion against the king, is speaking. This is a simile: a comparison using “like” or “as.” In this example the character is comparing doornails and whoever he is speaking to. Doornails used to be hammered into doors in a way that would make them unusable for anything else. They were hammered in and then the other side was bent with the hammer so that they could not be taken out easily. Not only could you not use them in a new door, you probably couldn’t take them out of the original door either. I guess that makes them pretty dead, right?
Dickens also famously used this phrase in the beginning of A Christmas Carol. He goes on for a full page about whether or not a certain character is dead, and whether or not a doornail itself can even be called dead.
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.
He makes a good point about coffin-nails! And then, of course, this character in A Christmas Carol comes back as a ghost, so he’s not so dead after all. This is a good example of irony, which is saying or writing the opposite of what you mean or intend.
In Shakespeare’s play, Cade is threatening several other characters with death. Even though he’s had no meat for five days and must be close to death himself, he’s still threatening to kill the others and not only that, to make them as dead as doornails. Pretty extreme!