Wednesday, October 27, 2021

RETRO - Episode 55: Dead As a Doornail Shownotes

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Bunny Trails

RETRO Episode 55: Dead As A Doornail

Cold Open Record Date: October 25, 2021

Reair Date: October 27, 2021

Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh. You get a cold open here because this week we’re bringing you a retro episode.

In recent years, we’ve tried to do our episodes as unstuck in time, where we avoid using references to a current event or particular time of year. This lets you, the listener, put yourself in the moment whenever you listen - or relisten. But to let you behind the scenes a bit, I was looking for something spooky as this episode will air just before Halloween. And I discovered we have done just a wild number of episodes with “death” in the title. But as we went through a few episodes, this is the one we landed on… Dead as a Doornail. 

But real quick, I do want to say thank you to our amazing Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig Lopez. Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to keep the show free for teachers, students, and word nerds alike because of the awesome support of Pat, Mary, and many others. So if you are in a financially stable place and want to support this education artform, head over to to see all the great ways you can support Bunny Trails. Or find us at our forever home,

At the end of the episode, we give a shout out to our friends Amy and Ryan at the Lexitecture podcast. They are still going and the shout out is just as relevant now as it was on July 24, 2019 when we originally aired this episode on the phrase, Dead as a Doornail. 


Bunny Trails

Episode 55: Dead As A Doornail

Record Date: July 23, 2019

Air Date:  July 24, 2019


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

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… which I’m not entirely how it came up. It didn’t seem appropriate to ask. But there we are… Dead As A Doornail. 


Pre the OED… Dead as a door-nail means “Completely or Certainly Dead”

Origins and History

We’re gonna focus on dead as a door-nail here, but there are a few other “dead as” statements that are also used including dead as a dodo, dead as a herring, and dead as a mutton. But I’m going to talk about ‘doornails’, because they are the common element in a few other phrases, too, like as deaf as adoornail, dumb as a doornail, dour as a door-nail.

But before I say “door nail” so many times that it has completely lost its meaning… 

What is a door-nail?

So door-nails are a large-headed nail, with which doors were formerly studded for strength, protection, or ornamentation. - OED

So then I immediately wondered, how does putting nails into a board make it stronger. And for that, I turned to the most trusted names in home improvement for anyone born in the 1980s…

No, not Tim the Tool Man Taylor… not even Al Borland, but Bob Villa. 

Clinch Nailing. A commonplace technique in the past, this is less often employed today. A clinched (or clenched) nail is driven through the pieces being joined, and the protruding tip is bent and nailed flush for extra holding power. Batten doors were traditionally made using this technique. From Nail Techniques, at 

I used to teach American National Government, and one fun facts that I enjoyed was how many of the Founders of America bragged about their ability to make nails. So I kind of assumed that nails in medieval times were often-times hand-made as well. So for this I turned to British economist Louis Salzman who specialized in medieval history. 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."

Salzman, L.F.. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952, pp. 303-304

Salzman here is referring to the short hundred vs the long hundred, where the short hundred was 100 as we think of it today, and the long hundred was 120. That’s something I learned from the Allusionist podcast, which is why you should totally check out some of our favorite word nerd podcasts. More at the end of this ep!

But enough Bunny Trailing… the first time we see dead as a doornail used is in the mid 1300s by William Langland. It seems he used it in a translation of a French Poem around 1350, but I couldn’t find it. I did find him using in it his 1362 work, The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman by William Langland. 

1362   Langland Piers Plowman A. i. 161   Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl.

a1375   William of Palerne (1867) l. 628   For but ich haue bote of mi bale..I am ded as dore-nail.

We see it a few more places before it becomes forever immortalized in the works of Shakespeare, including Henry VI, “And I do not leave the… as dead as a door nail”

1594   Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 2 iv. ix. 39   And I do not leaue dead as a doore nayle.

[1602   Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor ii. iii. 11   Begar de Hearing be not so dead as I shall make him.]

We see it used several times in the 1600s as Dead as a Herring. 

1664   S. Butler Hudibras: Second Pt. ii. iii. 213   Hudibras, to all appearing, Believ'd him to be dead as Herring.

1680   T. Otway Hist. Caius Marius v. 57   As dead as a Herring, Stock-fish, or Door-nail.

1792   I. Bickerstaff Spoil'd Child ii. ii. 32   Thus let me seize my tender bit of lamb—there I think I had her as dead as mutton.

1832   T. Creevey in Creevey Papers (1903) II. 245   Dead as mutton, every man John of us!

1856   C. Reade It is never too Late III. viii. 65   Ugh! what, is he, is he—Dead as a herring.

1884   Pall Mall Gaz. 29 May 5/2   The Congo treaty may now be regarded as being as dead as a doornail.

1904   H. O. Sturgis Belchamber iv. 51   The Radicalism of as dead as the dodo.

1919   W. S. Maugham Moon & Sixpence ii. 10   Mr. Crabbe was as dead as mutton, but Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets.

1935   Ann. Reg. 1934 ii. 305   References appearing in the London newspapers to the effect that ‘war debts are as dead as the Dodo’ were cabled to the American press.

1960   Guardian 24 Mar. 11/1   Mr. Menzies..refused a request for a boycott..saying he had hoped this ‘was as dead as a dodo’.

Western sentinel. [volume], May 13, 1880, SUPPLEMENT, Image 4

About Western sentinel. [volume] (Winston [i.e. Winston-Salem], N.C.) 1856-1886

The day book., July 02, 1912, Image 2

About The day book. (Chicago, Ill.) 1911-1917

Evening star. [volume], March 12, 1939, Page 8, Image 82

About Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972

No matter how much one looks into a phrase that goes dead as a dead thing, it still seems odd. I get that doornails would have been beaten senseless with a hammer to get into the door. And then just be inanimate while they sit there. But that doesn’t really answer why doornail was the noun that stuck. But half the fun of idioms is that they don’t make much sense. So I guess I will have to appreciate the unknown occasionally. 

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Book - 1980 - Dead as Doornails: A Memoir - Anthony Cronin

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.

Book - 2005 - Dead as a Doornail 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—a transformation he embraces more readily than most shapeshifters she knows. But her concern becomes cold fear when a sniper sets his deadly sights on the local changeling population, and Jason’s new panther brethren suspect he may be the shooter. Now, Sookie has until the next full moon to find out who’s behind the attacks—unless the killer decides to find her first…

There are also books of the same name by Linda P. Kozar in 2012 and Tanye Kappes 2018.

Song - Leavin' Em' Dead as a Doornail

By - Cobra

From the Album Self Made Wealth

May 20, 2015

I would have read you the lyrics here, but I cannot find them anywhere online. And I listened to a sample of the album but I actually couldn’t understand the words enough to repeat them here. But I did like the underlying bass tones. They felt wobbily in my chest as the artist low-level screamed the words as me. So I’ll let you take that for what it is.

Favorite Things About the Phrase

Possibly my favorite thing about this idiom is the connotation of the phrase itself. I’ll let Twitter User @thehollymae, from her post on July 18,  state my point...

So… of course anything that is as dead as a doornail would be dead as any other thing that isn’t alive! But I do find the symbolism to be interesting, even if it doesn’t make tons of sense. After all, that’s my favorite thing about idioms. Is that sometimes, no matter how much you research or review… they just don’t make much sense. But isn’t that an apt allegory for life?


Dan: That about wraps us up for today. Thank you so much for joining us. Don’t forget to find us on your favorite podcasting app and leave a review. We’re on Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, Himalya, RadioPublic, PocketCast, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast… suddenly I’m feeling like that Forrest Gump bit where Bubba names all the types of shrimp and how to cook them. So I guess we are the “fruit of the sea” of podcasts, if you catch that reference. Get us anywhere.

Shauna: If you have a suggestion for an idiom or other turn of phrase, or just wanna chat, you can catch us on social media, mostly on Twitter, @bunnytrailspod or on Patreon at Or catch us at home,

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 those words. You can probably see why we like the show!

Thanks again for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

Additional Sources Used Not already mentioned

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