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“As Dead as a Doornail” by Neal Murphy

April 15, 2017 - I have used the expression “dead as a doornail” many times, and I am sure that you have, too. We are not alone. Since the 14th century people have declared things to be dead as doornails. It makes sense that inanimate objects are dead, but then so are diamonds, doughnuts, and doorknobs. So, why do we use the expression “dead as a doornail”? What are doornails, and why are they so dead?

People who study words and phrases are called “etymologists”, and they are supposed to be very intelligent folk. Over the years these “etymologists” have studied this phrase and have settled on two possibilities as to the origin.

The first theory involved a door knocker that was installed on the front entry door. Door knockers date back to antiquity, but in modern times have been replaced with the doorbell. The early door knockers had a large nail that the knocker struck when hit with the top portion of the knocker. This nail was considered to be dead because the ring of the nail was deadened to a dull knock as the sound was diffused into the wooden door when struck. This large nail was considered dead because of the number of times it was struck on its head.

Then, there is this second theory. In ancient times many doors were very large and ornate, and required many nails to secure the wooden pieces. The practice was to hammer the nail through the wood pieces, and then bend the protruding nail end over to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching.

Clenching is when you drive a nail that passes through both thicknesses of wood you are fastening together. The tip of this nail sticks out about ¼” and is then bent over and driven into the wood. Clenching adds remarkable strength to a joint. A 1948 study by the U. S. Forest Products Laboratory concluded that clenching can increase the holding power of a nail between 45 percent and 464 percent – depending on a variety of factors.

Also interesting is that the study concluded that bending the nail tip across the grain increased the holding power by 20 percent compared to a nail clenched along the grain of the wood.

Since a nail that had been clenched could never be used again, it was considered a “dead nail”, and may be the source of the phrase. The old wooden doors were replete with “dead nails” holding it together.

Dickens was among the celebrated authors who liked the phrase and made a point of using it in his A Christmas Carol:

“I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. 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 doornail.”

This theory suggests that “dead as a doornail” refers to nails that found their final resting place in doors. Since this phrase has been around since the 1300s, perhaps it is time for a 21st century upgrade. Given the ubiquity of digital downloads, I would suggest a change to “as dead as a DVD”.