Believe it or not, the English language has about 25,000 idiomatic expressions. And some of the oldest ones have very interesting histories.
Today our question involves an expression from early English literature. It comes from Dimitrije in Serbia. Here is what he writes:
What is the exact meaning of the word "doornail"? That word comes from Shakespeare's idiom "as dead as a doornail." I'm not sure about what the idiom means and when it is used. - Dimitrije, Serbia
Hello, Dimitrije. That is a great question!
One of the best things about teaching is that students ask questions teachers don’t know the answers to. We have to look for the information and, in the process, we learn things, too.
Here is what I learned:
The expression “as dead as a doornail” is older than William Shakespeare. One of its earliest known uses was in a poem by the 14th century English writer William Langland.
Knowing the meaning of “doornail” will help us understand this idiom.
Doornails are very large nails that, in early times, were used to strengthen doors. Workers hit the nails into doors and the sharp end came out the other side. The worker then flattened the sharp metal with a hammer to make each nail secure.
There are two theories about why doornails were called “dead.” One says that, after they were repeatedly hit, the nails became unusable for any other purpose. Another says that the force and number of times these nails were hit “killed” them, making them “dead.”
Whichever explanation is true, “as dead as a doornail” simply means this: totally and completely dead.
The expression was common in England by the 16th century.
Today, the expression is not often heard, especially in American English.
As + adjective + as
But, making comparisons of equality with the word “as” is still common in American English.
One way we do this is with the structure as + adjective + as. For example:
I am as tall as my father.
Here’s another example:
Your food is as good as it was years ago.
When we use the as + adjective + as structure in expressions, we call them "similes." Here is an example of a commonly used simile:
As light as a feather
Here’s another example:
As happy as a clam
And, sometimes similes involve humor, such as “as exciting as watching paint dry,” which means: not exciting at all.
And that’s Ask a Teacher.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Do you have a question about grammar, word meanings, pronunciation or something else? Write to us in the Comments area. Be sure to list your country!
What are some common similes in your country? We would love to hear from you.
Words in This Story
idiomatic - adj. using, containing, or denoting expressions that are natural to a native speaker
idiom - n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words
nail - n. a long, thin piece of metal that is sharp at one end and flat at the other end and that is used usually to attach things to wood
feather - n. any one of the light growths that make up the outer covering of the body of a bird
clam - n. a type of shellfish that lives in sand or mud and has a light-colored shell with two parts