“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
If you can’t guess where that well-known novel-starter comes from you might need to brush up on your Chris lit. A Christmas Carol is my favourite yuletide read and is credited with popularising many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today. What’s more, Dickens kicked of his Christmas classic with an interesting linguistic query:
“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
It was a fairly old expression even by Dickens’ time, with the first attestation coming from 1350, and another one of our favourite home-grown writers, Shakespeare, used it in his Henry IV. At that time, there were plenty of other variations to choose from too, such as as dead as mutton or as dead as a herring. It was as dead as doornail that won out, probably because the alliteration of ‘d’ gives it a nice ring, but that doesn’t explain why doornails were particularly dead to begin with.
One possibility is that the doornail refers to the large, heavy nails which were studded into medieval doors for decorative purposes. Since they were so old and enduring, they might be considered dead enough.
Another possibility is that the doornail is in fact the nail found underneath a door knocker. After so many knocks on the head, that nail might be considered pretty dead too.
However the most likely explanation is that it comes from a standard term in carpentry. In a method called clinching, a nail is hammered through a piece of wood and then flattened at the other end so that it can’t fall out or be removed. This nail is then said to be dead as it can’t be reused and it was a practice particularly common in doors since they needed to be durable and secure.
This seems to me the most plausible answer, especially since now to clinch can mean ‘to settle definitely and conclusively; to make final’ and what’s more final or conclusive than being as dead as a doornail? If only Dickens were around to read Word Stories, he might find out exactly what there is particularly dead about a doornail.