Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Episode 55: Dead As A Doornail Transcript

Click on “Read More” for the full transcript.

We used Temi to auto transcribe this, then Dan went through and checked it based on the show notes. He tried really hard on it, but this kind of stuff isn't his specialty. So if you notice anything confusing, please comment on this post so Dan can look at it and clarify anything.

Shauna:                               00:00                    Welcome to bunny trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. I'm Shauna Harrison
Dan:                                     00:06                    and I'm Dan Pugh. Before we jump into our normal program, you may remember a couple of weeks ago we asked what your favorite places or organizations that help preserve written and oral histories. We had lots of great responses from the discussion, so I just wanted to point out a couple of them here. John Overholt recommended the English broadside Ballad Archive where he says quote, "not only are the originals digitized and their texts transcribed, but many have recordings of them being sung as this form of popular culture would have been used in the 16 hundreds".
Shauna:                               00:45                    I really like that one.
Dan:                                     00:47                    Right! That is amazing. Emily Prokop from The Story Behind Podcast recommends Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet digitalization project, The Wayback Machine, which I had not thought about the wayback machine before that, but what a phenomenal place. Like I've used the wayback machine so many times and trying to research something from the late nineties and early two thousands it's amazing.
Shauna:                               01:13                    Yeah, absolutely. Uh, Emily, good call on that one because a, a definitely a, The Wayback Machine is something I've used before, so,
Dan:                                     01:20                    Yeah, absolutely. Jeremy Biltz noted a project from 80 years ago when he said "Manly Wade Wellman worked for the WPAs New York folklore project in the 30s, basically wandering around the back country and writing down folk stories. That's pretty cool." I would agree. Wellman, so Wade Wellman, his first name was Manley, so they weren't saying like, he's manly. There's just like, that's his name. Uh, anyway, so Mr Wellman was the assistant director for the project in 1939 he was also a horror mystery writer. And WPA is the Works Progress Administration, which is one of the new deal projects America instituted following the Great Depression.
Shauna:                               02:04                    Huh. That's really cool. I love this concept of just like kind of wandering around to tell an individual people's stories like that. Like there are the little, you know,
Dan:                                     02:12                    yeah. I mean, his whole job was to walk around and record what people stories were, which is great. And there were a couple of books that I read that some of his, uh, Mister Wellman's works fed into like the vampire lore, which is a, uh, a weird concept. And it does of course make me wonder, does the fact that you write horror books tie into the way you write things down? I don't know,
Shauna:                               02:41                    Is there some kind of crossover? Although I guess if his focus was on folk stories, then you know?
Dan:                                     02:46                    Maybe who knows. A couple of other things we saw mentioned a few times where Story Corp, the Chronicling America program, and Preservation Week a project of the American Library Associations Association for library collections and technical services.
Shauna:                               03:03                    That's a mouthful.
Dan:                                     03:04                    It is though. And I swear I got that in one take. And no one will ever know the difference because I edit the podcast.
Shauna:                               03:11                    First try!
Dan:                                     03:12                    All right. So it was a great conversation. I would say I learned several new ways to protect and preserve works from, uh, yesterday and today. Uh, and we're going to link to all of these great things on our Patreon so you can see them for free at
Shauna:                               03:29                    So thank you everybody for contributing and letting us know about those things. That's really awesome.
Dan:                                     03:34                    That is amazing. All right, so moving onto our topic here. Each week we delve into the origin and history of an idiom or other turn of phrase and discuss how it's been used over time. This week we've got one that was suggested by a middle school principal after they ran into it while getting ready to gear up for back to school. Now I'm not entirely sure how it came up and it did not in the moment seem appropriate to ask how it came up. But nonetheless, here we are: Dead As A Doornail.
Shauna:                               04:05                    Um, okay. Yeah, I don't know. I wasn't expecting that. I mean I go in a lot of directions in my mind here and I was like, this is not the bonus episode. So you know,
Dan:                                     04:17                    this is the one though. This is where it came up. So, all right, so per the Oxford English dictionary dead as a doornail means "completely or certainly dead". Nice and simple. Right? Uh, so we're going to focus on dead as a doornail here, but there are a few other 'dead as' statements that are also used including dead as a Dodo, dead as a herring, dead as a mutton, but I'm going to talk about dead as a doornail because they are the common element in a few other phrases too. Like deaf as a doornail, dumb as a doornail, and dour as a doornail.
Shauna:                               04:54                    Huh? I see. Okay. I like that one dour as a doornail.
Dan:                                     04:57                    Right? Okay. So before I say doornail so many times it has completely lost its meaning. What is a doornail?
Shauna:                               05:05                    Now we hit it. It's lost its meaning now. Yeah.
Dan:                                     05:09                    Has it? Okay. Well, so here's the deal. Have you ever seen one of those... Like you think medieval doors, right? You think medieval hut or something? It's got like this wooden door on it and it's got all of these little, uh, circular things on it right throughout it. Maybe four acrossed and they just are even, it's got a door knocker in the middle and a handle. Yeah. But then also it's got the studded decorative stuff, right?
Shauna:                               05:33                    Yeah. They're kind of like rivets and align across it.
Dan:                                     05:36                    Yes. So that those things are not rivets. They're door nails. They are precursors for rivets. Hmm. And so door nails are "large headed nail, which doors were formerly studded for strength protection or ornamentation" according to the Oxford English dictionary. So of course then I was all like, um, how does putting nails into a board make it stronger?
Shauna:                               06:00                    And I was thinking the same thing.
Dan:                                     06:03                    Yeah. Nope. So for that, I turned to the most trusted name in home improvement for anyone born in the 1980s.
Shauna:                               06:13                    Ah, I'm not sure.
Dan:                                     06:14                    It's, well, it's not Tim the tool manTaylor. Ah, it's not even Al Borland. It's Bob Villa.
Shauna:                               06:22                    Oh No, you're right. It is Bob Villa.
Dan:                                     06:25                    Yes. We were both born in the 80s and yes, a hundred percent alright. So Bob Villa has an article on where he talks about nail techniques. And one of those he talks about is clinch nailing. So he says it's a commonplace technique in the past though it is less often employed today. A clinched nail is driven through the pieces being joined and the protruding trip is bent and nailed flush for extra holding power. Battened doors are traditionally made using this technique. So the concept is that this door is has more than one board to it, like thick, right?
Dan:                                     07:02                    And the nails are driven through both boards and then some of that nail is pointing out at the back end and then it's just hammered down so it's flush. And that means those two boards now are connected in a way that back in medieval times, they didn't have ways to make them tighter. You know, they didn't have screws and stuff, right? So they use this nailing, and I would also note that clench nailing is, is spelled, and even Bob Vila mentions this in his article, it could be spelled C. L. I. N. C. H. E. D. or C. L. E. N. C. H. E. D. He clearly did not want to get into that debate. He was just like clinched Cli, but also cle, whatever. I don't care. I'm not getting, listen, I'm not going to have this conversation because even back then Bob Villa was like, pedantry is not sustainable. I don't want to have this conversation.
Dan:                                     07:59                    All right. So that was, that was what I read about and that was how I learned. Okay. So clench, nailing, using these things, that's how it would make it stronger because it would be basically two-ply at this point. Right? Yeah.
Shauna:                               08:11                    Yeah. Makes Sense.
Dan:                                     08:12                    So I used to teach American national government, and one of the fun facts I enjoyed was how many of our founders in America bragged about their ability to make nails, which gave me the impression that nails in medieval times would have been handmade as well. So to figure out how this worked. I then turned to the British Economist Louis Salzman, who specialized in medieval history.
Shauna:                               08:40                    Okay.
Dan:                                     08:40                    From his book Building in England Down to 1540 he writes, “Thus the stores at Calais in 1390 included '494,900 nails of various kinds,' which, as nails were often reckoned by the long hundred of six score, may be actually 593,880."
Dan:                                     09:06                    So if you're not familiar, Salzman here is referring to this short hundred versus the long hundred where the short a hundred was 100 as we think of it today, right? And the long hundred was 120 and that is something I learned from the Allusionist podcast, which you should totally check out. But enough Bunny Trailing...
Dan:                                     09:25                    The first time we see dead as a doornail used is in the mid 13 hundreds. And so that referenced earlier, 1390s when we see nails like tons of nails being able to be purchased in a store. So this tracks the concept that door nails would be a common thing in the 13 hundreds so this is in the 13 hundreds by William Langland and it seems he used it in a translation of a French poem about 1350 but I actually couldn't find validation of that. I saw it in one place and I couldn't validate that in any other place.
Shauna:                               10:00                    Gotcha.
Dan:                                     10:00                    But I did find him using that exact same phrase, dead as a doornail in his 1362 work. The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman where he says, and "dead as a doornail" as part of the, the, the concept here. So this is actually the way I looked at these things and it probably, he probably did of course use it in this poem. I just couldn't validate that. But what I can say for sure is that in the 13 hundreds people were using dead as a doornail to mean very dead, like very, very, very dead. Definitely. Absolutely right. No longer living dead. He'll stone cold dead in moment. Dead, dead, right. All right. We see it a few more places before it becomes forever immortalized in the words of Shakespeare, including Henry the sixth "I do not leave thee... As dead as a doornail." That makes me sad every time I have to say that Shakespeare did a thing.
Shauna:                               10:57                    I mean, he didn't start this one.
Dan:                                     10:57                    no, of course he did not start this one, but he did help popularize it in the late 15 hundreds
Shauna:                               11:07                    He popularized a lot of phrases that we like and use and stuff.
Dan:                                     11:10                    True. But he also claimed that he wrote them.
Shauna:                               11:13                    That's true.
Dan:                                     11:16                    Which, he did not. All right. Anyway, so then we see it 16 hundreds, uh, several times as dead as a herring. And I want to just fast forward a little bit to see some other ways we see dead as a herring in the 16 hundreds we see dead as a mutton in the late 17 hundreds and early 18 hundreds and then we see dead as a herring, dead as a Dodo, and dead as a mutton, All in the early 19 hundreds
Shauna:                               11:41                    See, the dead is a Dodo is tracking for me because dodos are extinct. Absolutely. And so it's like, yeah, really dead. The dead as herring... I'm not sure I'm following.
Dan:                                     11:54                    I would think that most people only saw herring when they were food on their plate. Like sailors would have seen herring that might've been alive, but the vast majority of people who used the phrase would have only known about herring as food on their plate, much like mutton, which is lamb meat, right? You wouldn't say dead as lamb because that could be implied that it's alive, but herring doesn't have another way to say of the dead version of this. It's not like cow versus beef. Beef is dead. Cow, not necessarily.
Shauna:                               12:30                    That's really interesting. I like that.
Dan:                                     12:32                    Right? All right, so from the Western sentinel, which is the May 13th, 1880 edition out of Winston Salem, North Carolina, they say "the greenback party in Connecticut is dead as a doornail, asserts the new London telegram, but it adds by the death of the greenback organization, the Democrats will gain more in Connecticut than the Republicans."
Dan:                                     12:56                    In this case, they used doornail in quotations, which is interesting because I found it before that and after that newspapers that just talked about dead as a doornail as a phrase. So it is weird that they use doornail as a, uh, in quotations here.
Shauna:                               13:13                    So do you think that perhaps that was because it was a political, uh, writing and so...?
Dan:                                     13:18                    I don't think so... most of the times I see it used as political actually talking about political campaigns as in this example from the Day Book out of Chicago, Illinois, July 2nd, 1912, we're talking about Woodrow Wilson here, having just won the, uh, uh, presidential primary, "It was a great defeat for William Randolph Hearst who threw all those eggs in one basket, Champ Clark, and then found a basket had no bottom." So I liked that because eggs in one basket is a idiom as well. And they're talking about Champ Clark here.
Dan:                                     13:52                    And so that ties into the next couple of paragraphs in this same article, "Not until Saturday when New York threw its 90 votes to Clark in an effort to start a stampede to the speaker. The effort failed. The stampede stampeded wholly 14 and a half votes and Clarks candidacy became dead as a doornail." I'm not sure how you get 14 and a half votes. I was also going to point out that they stampede stampeded only the stampede. Stampede. It only, that's what a wild get a thesaurus man. Like seriously. They were probably 10 cents in 1912!
Shauna:                               14:31                    Like was the emphasis there was like, I'm like, this was not sarcasm. Like it's not a stampede?.
Dan:                                     14:40                    All right, so the evening star out of Washington DC, this was the March 12th, 1939 edition. And they talked about, this was an article called Without Malice where they said "Matthew swung his fist and Browning toppled over the rail into the dark area. The ships sped on. That just starts this tense drama." And this is a drama by Dale Collins. So this is one of the paragraphs under that. "A dripping officer reported to the captain. Another boat got him, sir. But I hear he's dead as a doornail. They've taken them along to the hospital and a doctor's with him. May get around of course." Hmm. I mean, I heard he's dead, but maybe he'll get better. Yeah.
Shauna:                               15:20                    Dead as a doornail. Uh, you know, there's that expression of like, you're not a dead until you're warm and dead. Okay.
Dan:                                     15:29                    Medically speaking, very true
Shauna:                               15:31                    Right. I should have started with that. There's a medical, there's an expression amongst the medical community. Very true.
Dan:                                     15:39                    As a former member of the medical community and myself, a very true statement, you're not dead until you're warm and dead.
Shauna:                               15:45                    Yeah. So, cause you know you're cold enough, you might still be alive.
Dan:                                     15:50                    Maybe that's what they meant by "may come around of course." Yeah. All right. Well, no matter how one looks into the phrase that goes dead as a dead thing, it still seems odd to me. Right. So I get the door nails would have been beaten senseless with a hammer to get into the door in the first place. And uh, then it would just be like inanimate while they just sit there. Of course. But that doesn't really answer why doornail was the noun that stuck. Uh, but half the fun of idioms is that they don't make much sense. So I guess I just have to appreciate the unknown maybe?
Shauna:                               16:18                    Fair enough. Well, today's show is sponsored by our patrons on Patreon. You make bunny trails possible. We would like to thank all of our patrons and especially our logamorpology interns, Charlie Moore, Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. is a subscription service that allows you to support content creators you love. It's free to sign up and follow along. Now we don't want anyone to break the bank by supporting our tiny little podcast, but if you are able to spare a few cents a day, you can get great perks like early access to episode's, show notes, behind the scenes content, and a bonus episode that is a little less kid friendly. Check out our free content at and if you want to become a patron of our art, that's where you can make that happen too.
Dan:                                     17:10                    All right, so there is a book from 1980 called Dead as a Doornail: A memoir by Anthony Cronin and In this account of life in post-war literary Dublin, Anthony Cronin writes of the frustrations and pathologies of this generation: the excess of drink; the shortage of sex; the insecurity and begrudgery; the limitations of cultural life in mid-century Ireland, and the bittersweet pull of exile. .
Shauna:                               17:39                    I mean, yeah, I'm with him.
Dan:                                     17:40                    Yeah, I know, I know. I've been like, I've never even been to Ireland, but I'm in, I want to read this story now. All right, so there's another book that was from 2000 and this is Dead as a Doornail which is the fifth book in Charlaine Harris's series The Southern Vampire Mysteries. "Small-town cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has had more than her share of experience with the supernatural—but now it’s really hitting close to home. When Sookie sees her brother Jason’s eyes start to change, she knows he’s about to turn into a were-panther for the first time..." I can't even... <laughter> I CAN'T EVEN... Werepanther?!
Shauna:                               18:19                    Did you just say wear panther?
Dan:                                     18:23                    Hi. I literally typing this. I was like, there's no way I'm going to be able to say that.
Shauna:                               18:28                    Hey, I am really going to be, I don't even want to admit this, but you said Sookie Stackhouse and like I've, I think I've heard that name. I why embarrassingly may have read, maybe not this one cause I don't remember the or panther thing at all. But the, the Stackhouse Oh, okay. Keep going.
Dan:                                     18:45                    Alright. "So she knows he's about to turn into a werepanther for the first time. A transformation he embraces more readily than most shapeshifters she knows. But her concern becomes cold fear when a sniper says is deadly sites on the local changeling population in Jason's new panther brethren suspect he may be the shooter. Now Suki has until the next full moon to find out who's behind the attacks unless the killer decides to find her first."
Shauna:                               19:20                    Okay, so you said most shapeshifters and I was thinking, oh, so they turn into like all different kinds of animals? Nope, except that then you're like panther brethren
Dan:                                     19:29                    Yeah that's it, just werepanthers.
Shauna:                               19:31                    Oh Wow.
Dan:                                     19:32                    <Singing> He's a werecow.
Shauna:                               19:33                    I thought those were the vampire that like...
Dan:                                     19:36                    yeah, I don't have any idea how werepanthers has to do with the southern vampire mysteries, but frankly it says "mystery" in the title.
Shauna:                               19:43                    That's true. Maybe they're all vampires and that's the mystery. I'm sorry if I gave it away for you guys.
Dan:                                     19:49                    Well, there are also books of the same name by Linda P. Kozar in 2012 and Tanye Kappes 2018, Dead as a doornail. I'm not going to read those synopses... synopsis's... synopsi? I'm not going to read those to you, but you can get the concept right. Yeah. There's also a song that I found called Leaving Em Dead As A Doornail thats by the band Cobra. It's from the album, Self-Made Wealth. And it was May 20, 2015. I would normally read you the lyrics here, but I can't find them anywhere online.
Dan:                                     20:24                    And I listened to a sample of the album and actually couldn't understand the words enough to repeat them here. Oh, so yes. But I did like the underlying bass tones. It was like boom, boom, boom. Felt really wobbly in my chest as the, uh, you know, artists low level screamed words, Abby, maybe, or just screamed words and I don't know, maybe in general anyway, I'll let you take for what it is. But I mean like leave em dead as a doornail song by Cobra.
Shauna:                               20:53                    Nice. I like it.
Dan:                                     20:54                    Yeah. I mean, sure, it's a thing right. To each their own. Possibly my favorite thing about this idiom is the connotation, the phrase itself. And while I already had this mentality, I looked around and I found a Twitter user that was clearly on the same page as me. Uh, this is @thehollymae from her post on July 18th where she says, "I hate the saying dead as a doornail because it implies that the doornail was once alive."
Shauna:                               21:23                    Yeah, I'm with you Holly. Like it makes no sense.
Dan:                                     21:27                    Yes. Well, I agree. It, it is very weird. So of course anything that is dead as a doornail would be dead as any other thing that isn't alive, right? So, Holly, you got that. I, I agree with you, but I, I do find this symbolism to be interesting even if it doesn't make tons of sense after all. That's probably my favorite thing about idioms is that sometimes no matter how much you research or review, they just don't make sense. And I think that might be an apt allegory for life.
Shauna:                               21:57                    Thats really deep.
Dan:                                     21:57                    And it was a way deeper than I normally get. Yeah. All right, well that about wraps this up for today. Thank you for joining us. Don't forget to find us on your favorite podcasting app and leave a review. We're on Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, Himalaya, Radiopublic, Pocketcasts, Apple Podcast, Google podcast... All right, so now I'm starting to feel like that Forest Gump bit where like a Bubba names all of the types of shrimp and how to cook them and stuff. Yeah, so I guess what I'm saying is that we're the fruit of the sea of podcasts. If you catch that reference, you can, you just get us anywhere. It's fine.
Shauna:                               22:32                    If you have a suggestion for an idiom or other turn of phrase, or if you just want to chat, you can catch us on social media, mostly on Twitter, @bunnytrailspod or on Patreon at, or you can catch us at home, at This week we want you to check out the great word nerd podcast Lexitexture. It's one of Dan and I's favorite source of random etymology. In each episode Ryan, a Canadian and Amy, a Scot, get together armed with a new chosen word, and then they regale each other with whatever bits of fascinating trivia they've been able to uncover about the origins and histories of the words, so you can probably see why we like the show. Thanks again for joining us. We'll talk to you again next week. And until then, remember...
Together:                           23:22                    words belong to their users.

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