It is hard to imagine that we do not all fully understand the word dead.

It may come as a surprise then to discover that the OED2 entry for dead occupies 14 columns in volume IV and comprises about 12,000 words.  Of course, that quantity is largely made up of quotations, but for all that it is an impressive amount of learning for an apparently straight-forward word.  The principal entry for dead (as adjective, noun and adverb) is followed by entries for various composites such as dead-beat, dead-centre and dead drunk.

The OED2 entry for dead focuses on its principal use as an adjective: describing a person or thing which had once been alive but is no longer.  But this sense allows a number of shades of meaning and includes the following:

  • dead to the world: unconscious or fast asleep;
  • dead from the neck up: brainless, stupid;
  • of species which have become extinct, notably in the idiom dead as a dodo;
  • of things (practices, feelings, etc.): No longer in existence, or in use; extinct, obsolete, perished.  For example, dead languages; or love is dead.
  • of inanimate things: e.g.
    • dead place: 1712 Le Blond’s Gardening “It is more difficult to make Plants grow in Gaps and dead Places, than in a new Spot.”;
    • dead weight,
    • dead angle:  “any angle of a fortification, the ground before which is unseen, and therefore undefended from the parapet”,
    • dead rent: “a fixed rent which remains as a constant and unvarying charge upon a mining concession, etc.”
  • Similarly, dead embers, dead acoustics.

It is interesting to see how a word which is generally thought to be the flipside of life can be applied to things which never lived and never could.

Dead as a herring dates back to the late 17th century, was a minor vogue in the mid-18th century, but its use has fallen away in the past hundred years or so.  It makes little sense.   At the time the expression was in more common use, the North Sea was referred to as the Herring Pond and was abundantly stocked .  Even today the herring stocks in the North Sea, although depleted, are recovering.

According to Funk, it means very dead.  All fish smell bad a while after they are dead.  Apparently herring start to smell sooner, and worse, than other dead fish (I cannot vouch for this) so a dead herring smells extremely dead.

Perhaps because dead can apply so broadly, it has spawned a large number of idiomatic expressions.  Some of these are obvious metaphorical uses of the word.  Dead drunk is understandable once dead to the world is understood, although it might just be an example of dead as an intensifier.  Dead wicket is as easily understood as dead acoustics.

Similarly, for a horse to run dead is easily understood.

Some other idiomatic expressions are much less obvious, for example: dead broke, dead centre, dead keen, dead right, dead certain.  Here the connection with death has for all practical purposes vanished, and dead is used simply as an intensifier.  Likewise dead beat in its original sense meant utterly exhausted (1821).  Later it came to be used as a noun, deadbeat,  meaning a worthless idler who sponges on his friends (1863), and in Australian slang a person who is down on his luck (1898).  But originally, dead beat was another example of dead being used simply as an intensifier, with no reference to death.

The use of dead as an intensifier stands interestingly against dead as a herring, where it is the herring which intensifies the effect of death rather than the reverse.

In this use, it goes back a long way.  Thomas Nashe, a 16th century pamphleteer, in Almond for Parrat wrote in 1589: “Oh he is olde dogge at expounding, and deade sure at a Catechisme.”  (Parrat was an alternative spelling for parrot.  By a nice historical symmetry, dead as a parrot is one of the best known recent idioms for “completely dead”.  It was used in the Monty Python show first screened on 7 December 1969 and is very widely recognised, although the OED2 remains conspicuously silent on the subject.)

Dead as a doornail is another idiom which is far from obvious.  It also goes back a long way.  In 1680 Otway wrote in Caius Marius: “As dead as a Herring, Stock-fish, or Door-nail.” It has curious origins.  In times before bank safes and sophisticated domestic security existed, solid doors were an essential part of front line defence of hearth and home.  Back then, doors were very strongly made, typically a solid timber frame with solid timber panels attached.  The various pieces were typically nailed together.  To make it more difficult to break through the door, the nails used were longer than the combined thickness of the frame and panels together, so they protruded through to the opposite side.  The protruding end of the nail would then be hammered over flat, making it virtually impossible to pull the nail out and correspondingly difficult to break the door apart.  Many old buildings have doors made this way, and one glance makes it clear that this was a very strong door.

But once the protruding end of the nail had been hammered flat, the nail could not be re-used: it was, metaphorically, dead.  Dead as a doornail is the idiom which resulted.

Dead reckoning is another use of dead which has nothing to do with death.  It is a means of reckoning your present position at sea (or more dangerously, in the air) by starting with a previously known position and calculating subsequent speed and direction while adjusting for known wind, currents and other forces which might affect your progress.  It is done without reference to observable fixed points such as stars or landmarks.  It is a pretty rough and ready way of calculating position, and is subject to all manner of errors.  One theory has it that it is really ded reckoning, for deduced reckoning.  This stands awkwardly with the fact that it has been spelled dead reckoning since about 1587, and is referred to in Moby Dick (1851) and in Walden by Thoreau (1854).

The OED2, which gives 1613 as the earliest use, defines dead reckoning as “The estimation of a ship’s position from the distance run by the log and the courses steered by the compass, with corrections for current, leeway, etc., but without astronomical observations” but it does not venture any theory about how it came to be so called.  Perhaps it is mute testament to the danger of proceeding that way: at sea, and especially in the air, if you run the risk of calculating your position wrongly you may end up dead.

Most of these uses are dead as an adjective: qualifying a noun. But in its use as an intensifier, dead is used as an adverb, qualifying an adjective: dead lucky, dead centre, etc.  These uses as different parts of speech pass almost unnoticed.

It can also be used as a noun: and is so used in such familiar expressions as bury the dead, loud enough to wake the dead, etc. and, less familiar, in the US slang on the dead meaning in deadly earnest.

But dead can also be used as a verb, and when so used it strikes the ear very oddly.  Most of us have hear Bluebottle in the Goon show complaining that someone has “deaded me”.  That usage sounds plain wrong, but it dates back to the 14th century.  It can be used intransitively:

  • Chaucer “Al my felynge gan to dede.”   (1384)
  • Bacon “Iron, as soon as it is out of the Fire, deadeth straight-ways.” (1626)
  • Fuller “Their loyalty flatteth and deadeth by degrees.”  (1654)

But it can also be used transitively (but only as a past participle, it seems):

  • Spenser “Our pleasant Willy..is dead..With whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded.” (1591)
  • Nashe “Tree rootes..stubbed downe to the ground, yet were they not utterly deaded.” (1594)
  • Wilson “This‥deaded the matter so, that it lost the Cause.” (1653)
  • Milligan “You rotten swine! You’ve deaded me!” (1956)

All these quotations except the last come from OED2.  The last comes from memory but it is accurate.  It is interesting to see that it sounds absurd despite having centuries of usage to support it.

In contemporary Aboriginal slang, deadly is a word used with two distinctive features.  Despite its form, it is used as an adjective not as an adverb, and its meaning is opposite of what you might imagine: it means excellent or very good, and thus parallels the way wicked is used in contemporary slang. The Deadlys is the name of an Award to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for outstanding achievement.