Kill that doornail

Clodagh Walsh: I've tried two other sites with this question, and gotten no response... third time lucky, I hope. Do you know anything about this expression? Why would a doornail be "dead"?

Barbara: Dead as a doornail seems to have been established as a proverbial expression by the time (1350) it first appeared in writing, yet no one knows why a doornail should be deader than any other inanimate thing. It has been conjectured that the particular nail referred to was the one on which the knocker fell and that its deadness may have been a whimsical assumption from the pounding it received. It has also been conjectured that its deadness may have been suggested by the silence with which such pounding was often received; for until the policed and electrically lighted security of modern times people did not open their doors, especially after dark, merely because someone knocked. This latter guess is supported by the fact that it was sometimes as dumb as a doornail or as deaf as a doornail or as dour as a doornail. But at best these are only theories. No one has ever found a context that throws any light on the problem. No one really knows what the simile means, and a figure of speech that has been used daily for six hundred years without anyone'' knowing what it means must surely be granted to be a cliché. -- From " A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage"
I just researched this for my daughter. Dickens mused about the same thing in the first paragraph of A Christmas Carol.


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