Dead as a Doornail


“Dead as a doornail”


M, my father, grew up in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and dates his introduction to this saying to “sometime in the 80s.” He stated that everyone in his community commonly used the phrase to describe something that was “really dead”; when asked to elaborate, some examples provided of “really dead” things were “birds that hit windows, long dead pets of friends, bugs, mice, and movie characters that get found dead after days.” M also expressed confusion about the origins and meaning of the phrase, saying that he “[didn’t] know what it actually means” before asking “what’s dead about a doornail?” He currently lives where I grew up in Seattle, Washington; I don’t remember hearing him say the phrase in conversation. 


I suspect that my father’s (and my own) confusion about the saying’s practical meaning indicates its original context has since been lost. The saying is therefore likely quite old in nature and feels like a testament to the lasting nature of elements of folk speech. Despite the unclear nature of the saying’s origin, it nonetheless reveals a lot about attitudes towards death in my father’s childhood community. Many examples M provided, like a dead movie character or long dead pet of a friend, convey a degree of distance or emotional detachment to the deceased being. That detachment is contrasted with the lack of deaths relating to close family, friends or pets. It seems as though this saying is only used in reference to beings whose deaths are considered less tragic or important to the person using the phrase. I also find it interesting that my father no longer seems to use it and has not passed it on to me or my sister, perhaps due to regional or generational differences.