Q&A: Dead origins

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re dead keen on our topic…

Q: Hi AWC, with Day of the Dead coming up on the weekend, I thought we could talk about some phrases that have the word “dead” in them. There are a lot!

A: You’re dead right about that!

Q: Well, let’s start with that one. “Dead right” – doesn’t seem to fit the “not alive” meaning really. Why not?

A: Well, it turns out ironically that “dead” has many lives. As well as the not-breathing, not-moving variety, dead can mean a lot of other things. The adjective was kicking around since the 1200s, but it wasn’t until the late 1500s that we saw new meanings – including “absolute or totally”.

Q: And that’s what the dead in “dead right” means?

A: Dead right. You’ll also find it in “dead wrong”, “dead certain” and “dead boring”.

Q: Well, “dead boring” makes sense because something that is dead isn’t typically the life of the party!

A: Sure, but that’s irrelevant here. Remember it’s the “totally” meaning, so you can have “dead boring” but can also talk about the party as being “dead fun” or being “dead keen” to go.

Q: Are there other examples of this “totally, absolute” meaning?

A: Yep. An exam can be “dead easy” or “dead hard”. During it, they’re “dead serious” about requiring “dead silence”. And if you use your arm to cheat, then it’s usually a “dead giveaway”.

Q: Oh! My uncle Terry used to work in the morgue. Every month when they got too full, they’d hold a dead giveaway.

A: Um, that doesn’t sound legal.

Q: I think you’re right. They didn’t have a raffle license.

A: Okay, let’s continue. So, “dead” can ALSO mean “exact or precise”. Examples of this would be “the dead centre of town”.

Q: Oh hey, that’s where the morgue was!

A: Right. So, you might also say that something is “dead straight” or “dead ahead” or if you’re a good shot, you’re called a “deadeye”. It’s also where we get “dead ringer” from – someone who looks like someone else.

Q: Don’t you mean “dead wringer”?

A: No – it’s a common misspelling, but we get “ringer” from the 19th century horse racing – the name of a duplicate horse falsely passed off as one with a higher pedigree.

Q: So a “dead ringer” is a lookalike?

A: Yes. You know, like Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry.

Q: Bit harsh comparing them to horses… Anyway, what other dead things can we talk about?

A: Well, to be “a dead-set” used to be against something, dating back to the 1800s, however Australians have flipped it in modern slang to mean strongly in the affirmative. For example, if someone were asked if they were serious about quitting, they might say “dead set, I’m leaving tomorrow!”

Q: My uncle Terry tried to quit the morgue but his boss said “over my dead body”.

A: So did he stay?

Q: Well, only for another six years, until his boss died and it came true.

A: Wow.

Q: These days, he wouldn’t be caught dead near the place.

A: Ah! That’s another good one – an expression that turned up around 1915.

Q: What about “dead end”?

A: It started off meaning a closed off drainage pipe in the 1850s, before expanding to railways and streets by the 1880s. The more figurative use of being stuck for a course of action didn’t come along until 1914.

Q: And “dead heat”?

A: Well, it was again first used in horse racing as early as 1796, before expanding to other sports.

Q: And what about those imaginary things called “deadlines”?

A: Haha, well during the American Civil War, prisons would draw a “dead line” around the outside fences. If you crossed it, you were shot immediately. Today’s deadline is merely a time limit and dates from the 1920s.

Q: Maybe they should bring back that other one. I’d probably meet more deadlines.

A: Actually, speaking of deadlines, it’s time to go.

Q: But I have more!

A: Dead set, we’re out of time.

Q: You’re dead to me.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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