As Dead as a Doornail

In ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, Dickens writes that “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.”

The phrase predates Dickens, it was quoted earlier by William Shakepeare’s character Jack Cade in Henry VI Part II with the line “Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”

But why a doornail?

Indeed Ebenezer Scrooge further conjectures “what there is particularly dead about a door-nail” and suggest that “a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.”

Doornails tended to be oversized nails that were nailed into doors to both reinforce and decorate the door. They were secured by ‘clenching’ or hammering over the point of the nail as it protruded through the back of the door – ‘dead nailed’.

Nails were traditionally forged by blacksmiths by hand and were thus expensive and often reused. A nail that had been ‘clenched’ could not be reused and so was as dead as a doornail.