Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Episode 180: Dead of Winter Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 180: Dead of Winter

Record Date: January 22, 2023

Air Date: February 1, 2023



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

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever stepped outside and the wind blows in your face and it is so cold it burns your skin? I frequently have to ask myself why I live in a place, Kansas, USA, that during certain times of the year the air hurts my face. And that experience is what led me to look into today’s phrase, Dead of Winter. 


Dead of winter, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means:


A time of intensest… cold

End Quote

Since this phrase comes to us in two parts, ‘Dead’ and ‘Winter’ let’s break it down. I’ll start with the word “winter”. 

Oxford English Dictionary has the definition of winter as: 


The season between autumn and spring (generally regarded as lasting from December to February in the northern hemisphere and from June to August in the southern hemisphere), characterized by cold weather, long nights, the absence of leaves on deciduous trees, and the hibernation of certain animals. Also: the colder half of the year, including the cooler parts of spring and autumn, as contrasted with summer.

End Quote

Winter is an interesting word. There are several paragraphs on its origin in the Oxford English Dictionary. We know it came to English from Germanic, and we know it is cognate, meaning it comes from the same original word or root, to similar words in Old Frisian, Old Dutch, Old Saxon, Old High German, early Scandinavian, Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, Old Danish, and Gothic. Which just means the word has been used for a long time to describe the cold times of the year. 

The interesting part for linguistics is how the word “winter” is not attested in other branches of Indo-European, which uses a different base to denote the season. The word “hiems”.

Here is a little more on some theories from the Oxford English Dictionary.


It has often been suggested that the Germanic name for this season may derive from a variant with nasal infix of the Indo-European base seen in ‘wet’ adj. and ‘water’ n., reflecting a characterization of winter as ‘the wet season’, with the proposed nasalized base being paralleled by certain cognates of ‘water’ n. However, these forms are now usually held to reflect anticipation of the -n- of an Indo-European suffix rather than nasalization within the root itself, which renders this argument problematic. 

The word has alternatively been connected with the Indo-European base of Early Irish ‘find’ white, implying that winter was understood as ‘the white season’,presumably a reference to snow, or with the base of ‘wind’ n. and weather n., i.e. ‘the windy season’; although semantically plausible, neither of these explanations can be accepted with confidence.

End Quote

Our friends Amy and Ryan over at the Lexitecture podcast explored other uses of the word ‘winter’ with three different definitions as nouns and one as a verb. If you want to learn more about this fascinating word and its long history, check out episode 119 titled ‘Christmas Winter’, where they talk about the word ‘Christmas’ in the first half, and the word ‘winter’ in the last half. You can find Lexitecture wherever you get your podcasts or at their website, 

Now we can look at the first part of the phrase, ‘Dead’. We explored a little the word ‘dead’ a few previous episodes. Most of us are familiar with the common usage, meaning no longer alive. This form also comes to us from Germanic through Old English and was used in the heroic poem Beowulf, which according to,


…deals with events of the early 6th century, and, while the date of its composition is uncertain, some scholars believe that it was written in the 8th century. 

End Quote 

So like ‘winter’, ‘dead’ as a word has been around a long time. But another usage of dead, besides being no longer alive, is - as the OED writes - 


Bereft of sensation or vitality; benumbed, insensible.

End Quote

This could be applied to parts of the body (dead arm), to a person as a whole (in a dead sleep), as hyperbole (dead to the world), or even as pain (a dead, aching pain). 

When the word ‘dead’ is applied to a period, season, or stage, it takes on the definition we mentioned at the top of the show from the OED,


The time of intensest stillness, darkness, cold, etc

End Quote

The first attestation listed in the OED is by Anthony Sherley in Sir Antony Sherley his relation of his trauels into Persia · 1st edition, 1613 (1 vol.)

I pulled this quote from the document through University of Michigan’s online library from page 4, so the very beginning of the book. 


…and though my iourney was vnder-taken in the dead of Winter, and I left no paines vntaken to accelerat it; yet before I could arriue in Italy, I found the Duke giuen ouer to quieter resolutions.

End Quote;view=fulltext

Here’s another example found in 


How be it we may here learn, when all means fail (without our default) yet still to rely upon God’s providence: for he feeds the fowls in the dead of winter, and we are better than they.

End Quote

Of course you listeners know I love finding dictionaries from ye olden times that list our phrase. Here’s one from meme sensation Samuel Johnson from his dictionary A History of the Language, And An English Grammar, 6th Edition. 

You may have noticed I described Samuel Johnson as a meme sensation. In the show notes I’ll include an image of Mr. Johnson from this book. 

You may recognize his plump frame, his white wavy hair that is bunched up on the sides like an early Princess Leia stan, sporting a bewildered look on his face. According to Know Your Memes, Two of Mr. Johnson’s portraits were modified, animated, and memed in 2012, one where he is holding a newspaper and saying a slightly more profane version of daHECK did I just read? and the one we have here where he appears to just be looking into the camera with a confused and maybe slightly angry look on his face. 

If you want to learn more about Samuel Johnson and his meme, join us on the lightly edited, uncensored Behind the Scenes version, available to all our Patrons at


Let’s move forward to 1837 with An Essay on the Archeology of our Popular Phrases and Nursery Rhymes Vol 2 by John Bellenden Ker, Esq. 

In this he has an entry of “The Dead Of” and even references Samuel Johnson’s definition in this entry. 


As in the phrases, the dead of night, the dead of winter…

Winter or night, with all the marks and signs which denote winter or night, such as cold in one case, and darkness in the other…

Johnson interprets dead in these phrases, as stillness, gloom; but the dead of winter may be a very stormy time; and so may the dead of night; at all events, that source for the term in these phrases never can be real.

End Quote

Here’s one from 1902… 

One more, this from 1959…

I included this one just so I could include the photos, which show Mr. Wahleen struggling with a task in much the same way I might if I was forced to go outside and do something in the cold, cold snow. 

A Quick Thank You

Modern Uses

1987 Movie

Dead of Winter is a 1987 horror thriller film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Mary Steenburgen and Roddy McDowall. Here’s the synopsis from


Struggling actress Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is approached by the mysterious Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) and invited to an upstate New York mansion to film a screen test. There she meets Dr. Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes), who is eager to hire Katie as a replacement for an actress who's suffered a nervous breakdown. But the film shoot takes a sordid turn as Katie begins to understand that her role is simply a pawn in Lewis' twisted blackmail games.

End Quote

1998 Song

Dead of Winter is song by Eels of their 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues. This is a somber song, with the opening lines going:


Standing in the dark outside the house

Breathing in the cold and sterile air

Well, I was thinking how it must feel

To see that little light

And Watch it as it disappears

And fades into

And fades into the night

End Quote

2014 Boardgame

Dead of Winter is a tabletop game that is part of the Crossroads series. I’ll let Polyhedron Collider set the stage with the opening paragraph of their review:


Picture the scene; it's the middle of both a post-apocalyptic zombie invasion and the worst winter in recorded history, you're running low on everything from food to medicine and you come across a horse. A horse would be very useful for getting around town quickly, it's a majestic beast and for one to have survived this far into a zombie outbreak means it's a fighter, but it also represents a significant quantity of fresh protein and there's plenty of starving mouths to feed back at the colony.  So what do you do?

End Quote 

This game is for 2 - 5 players and can last 1 to 2 hours. It focuses on valuing group vs personal needs as the Colony struggles to stay alive. 

I’ve never played this one, but it sounds like it could be interesting. We’ll include a link to a youtube video talking about how to play it on the show notes and on the Patreon. 

2014 Movie

In this same year, 2014, we also saw another movie called Dead of Winter. This one is also a horror film, in which a geocache treasure hunt in the wilderness of snowy Colorado turns into a deadly game of survival. Ba Ba Bum…

This one was produced by Robert Rice and stars Dave Barclay, John Boylan, and John Carew.

2018 Song

Next up is a 2018 song by the Make Believes called Dead of Winter. I listened to this song and could not believe it wasn’t a 1960s song ala the Turtles or the Animals or the Mamas and the Papas. I absolutely love this song. The melody and the beat are happy and fun. The lyrics are about a person trying to get back to his love. . But I didn’t really listen to the words, so it’s fine by me. 


When the moon's at its lowest place in the sky

And the city around you is still

I come back to the place where we started it all

And wait for you, my love, I will

I would sacrifice the promise that I made before you took my hand

I would wander blind and hungry like a stranger in a stranger land

If my pleading don't surprise you and if nothing satisfies you

Then ragged alone I stand in the dead of winter 

End Quote 

The Make Believes are an in-universe band in the video game We Happy Few. From the video games wiki, 


Compulsion Games and the audio division of Signal Space Lab collaborated on bringing together some of Canada's most prominent names in the Montreal music scene to create The Make Believes.

    Murray A. Lightburn - Lead vocals, guitar, bass. The Dears

    Brad Barr - Lead vocals, guitar. The Barr Brothers

    Andrew Barr - Drums, percussion, backing vocals. The Barr Brothers

    Patrick Watson - Lead vocals, keys. Patrick Watson

During recording, around late 2015 to April 2016, they kept to an analogue sound, along with vintage pre-amps and instruments. The lyric (sic) were created after being informed of the game world and the people inhabiting it.

The band created 10-12 tracks, though only 7 can be heard in the final game. There's an 8th song that can only be heard in the launch trailer, called "I Wanna Stay the Same". 

End Quote

I need to check out these other songs and see if I love them as much as I do this one.

Many books 2009 - 2021

I wanted to list a few books with the title Dead of Winter, but that got out of hand quickly. So I’ll speed run just a few of the authors and the year published, according to Google Books.

Rennie Airth, 2009

Michael Allegretto, 2012

Brian Moreland, 2012

Lee Collins, 2012

Kresley Cole, 2015

Stephen Mack Jones, 2021

Daniel Buell, NJ Ember, Lindy Ryan, 2021

2023 Music Festival

And finally, winter 2023 marks Rev Tor’s 11th Annual Dead of Winter Jam hosted this year at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Maine.

From their website:


Hosted by Rev Tor’s Dead Man’s Waltz (formerly Steal Your Peach), this annual mid-winter celebration honors 58 years of Grateful Dead music and includes a slew of special guests, including Mark Mercier (Max Creek), Jen Durkin (Deep Banana Blackout), Mark Paradis (The Marks Brothers/Lobsters From Mars), Mike “Woody” Wood (Rebel Alliance) and Them Bastards (Chris Merenda & Dave Brown).

Interweaving the classic songs and jams of The Grateful Dead, Dead Man’s Waltz is an all-star collective from the Northeast festival scene. Dead Man’s Waltz features top-notch musicianship and offers a refreshing twist to the music of The Grateful Dead. While staying true to the spirit of the music, the band members put their own dynamic spin on a vast catalog of beloved songs that are now part of the new American songbook.

End Quote

Along with it, they are doing a food drive for local food pantries. Which is super chill of them. 

Wrap Up

I have a love-hate relationship with winter and with cold weather in general. I love that winter tends to kill off the insects so they aren’t so bad during the warmer months. But the Dead of Winter is my least favorite time. And it is made worse by living in Kansas where a 15 mph (24 kph) wind is considered normal. To quote podcaster Ryan Paulsen,  “You never hate a wind like you hate a wind in the winter”.  As I continue to get older I just don’t like winter. I’m beginning to understand the trope of why people move to warmer climates when they retire. I’m thinking I might do that myself. 


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


It’s Patron Poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons:

If you could magically have one room in your home be always clean, which one are you going with?

80% of our Patrons said the kitchen. The bathroom was a distant second. 

JGP was the first to comment on the poll:


Definitely the kitchen. Cooking and baking result in so many things to wash and that before you even get to eat the result!

End Quote


I agree. The bathroom is a close second for me, but the kitchen would be the top. Cleaning up after myself isn't that big a deal, but I'm not the only one who uses the kitchen. And after a big meal it would be nice to have some magical entity helping out. Though if I lived by myself, I might go with the bathroom. 


I think I’m for the kitchen as well. It’s mostly the time for me. I like big, elaborate meals that take a lot of work to prepare but I don’t have time to cook and clean. And I’d definitely eat at home more if the kitchen was always clean. 

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



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


Words belong to their users. 

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