Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘13th Century’

Deaf As A Doornail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 23, 2018

Someone who is deaf as a doornail is someone who is, or is accused of being, almost completely if not completely deaf.  It’s a term used less often than dead as a doornail, however it is correct to use deaf as a doornail.  It’s also related to other similar expressions such as deaf as a post, deaf as a doorpost, and deaf as a doorknob.

In the April 7, 2017 DisArt Festival website review of Terry Galloway’s stage performance directed by Florida State University professor Donna Marie Nudd, the idiom found its way into the first sentence.

Terry Galloway has been deaf as a doornail since she was nine. She spent years living in relatively peaceful silence, until technology– in the form of a cochlear implant– caught up with her.

A hundred years earlier, the expression was used in a story titled “Boldero” by American novelist Henry Milner Rideout (25 April 1877 – 17 September 1927) and illustrated by Edmund Franklin (E.F.) Ward (3 January 1892 – 14 December 1990), and published on September 1st, 1917 in Volume 190 of “The Saturday Evening Post.”

Boldero raced down the levee slope and halted, facing the man.

The fire, though humble, cast a warm red glow on him who watched it. He looked up — a hawk-nosed, beardless, brown-faced little old man, with skeptical eyes.

“Can’t hear a word you’re saying,” declared this figure in a toneless voice. “You’ll have to speak louder. I’m deaf as a doornail.”

Uttering the words like an old and tiresome formula, he continued to warm his hands.

The expression is found in the article, “Scottish Pulpit Eloquence” published in “Relics of Literature” compiled and edited by Stephen Collet, A.M. in 1823. The article starts off by stating the extract is from a seventeenth century tract entitled, “A Sermon Preached in St. Giles Kirk, at Edinburg, common called Pockmanty Preaching, by James Row, some time Minister of Strowan.” It was determined that the year of the sermon by information in the tract that this sermon was written in 1643.  The expression appeared in this section:

The first of these general divisions was naturally susceptible of subdivision, and the preacher displayed much quaint ingenuity in pointing out in what respects the kirk had been affected in each of her five senses, particularly in that of hearing, “by the bringing of the organs,” since which she has become “as deaf as a door nail.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Stephen Collet was a pseudonym for Reuben Percy which was a pseudonym for English journalist and editor Thomas Byerley (1788 – 1826).  Thomas Byerley edited the “Literary Chronicles” as well as “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.”

It appeared in the works of French Renaissance writer, physician, humanist, monk, and Greek scholar François Rabelais (4 February 1494 – 9 April 1553). In the Sir Thomas Urquhart translations of his books, the expression is found in “Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III” also known as “The Third Book of Pantagruel” published in 1546.

This extract is from “Chapter 3. XXXIV – How Women Ordinarily Have The Greatest Longing After Things Prohibited.” The beginning of the chapter mentioned Pope John XXII (1249 – 4 December 1334) and the Abbey of Toucherome.

There are, quoth the physician, many proper remedies in our art to make dumb women speak, but there are none that ever I could learn therein to make them silent. The only cure which I have found out is their husband’s deafness. The wretch became within few weeks thereafter, by virtue of some drugs, charms, or enchantments which the physician had prescribed unto him, so deaf that he could not have heard the thundering of nineteen hundred cannons at a salvo. His wife perceiving that indeed he was as deaf as a door-nail, and that her scolding was but in vain, sith that he heard her not, she grew stark mad.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Pope John XXII was the second as well as the longest-reigning Avignon Pope, reigning from 5 September 1316 through to his dead on 3 December 1334. He was elected Pope by the Conclave of Cardinals after more than two years after the death of Pope Clement V.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Nearly a month after Pope John XXII’s death, Cardinal Jacques Fournier was elected Pope, taking the name of Benedict XII. Pope Benedict XII reigned from 30 December 1334 to his death on 25 April 1342.

According to modern-day carpenters as well as carpenters of the middle ages, in the 13th century, a doornail was a large-headed nail, easily clinched, for nailing doors, through the battens (a small board used to reinforce doors as well as for other building purposes). Clinching meant to bend the end of the nail to provide a secure fastening, thereby rendering it dead to any additional hammering.

By the time the 14th century arrived, small metal plates were nailed on doors to allow visitors to pound them with knockers to announce their arrival. The metal plates were secured to such doors with dead nails.  If no one was in the vicinity of the door being knocked on, it was difficult (and sometimes impossible) to hear someone knocking at the door even when someone was at home.  It certainly makes it easy to understand where the expression deaf as a door nail originates when the history of how doornails, deadness, and deafness intertwine is known.

You may also be interested in reading about being dead as a doornail.  If you are, CLICK HERE to read that entry.

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Dead Duck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 20, 2011

The phrase “dead duck” is a funny sounding phrase.  It brings to light an interesting visual and questions about how a dead duck became synonymous with the concept of being ineffectual.

The Irish Canadian newspaper of May 20, 1886 reported on Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Gladstone of the Liberal Party by stating that

Protests are even now coming home to him, charging him with having almost accomplished the ruin of the Liberal party, and declaring that his usefulness as a leader is gone.  His vanity has destroyed all chances to the succession and his treachery of his chief has made it painfully manifest that he can no longer be trusted.  Come what may, one this is certain: Mr. Chamberlain is a dead duck politically.  Not so, however, with Mr. Gladstone.  He is cheered by many voices all over the land, urging him, in the event of an adverse vote upon his bill, not to resign, but to appeal to the people.  It is thought that this course will be adopted, provided her Majesty consents to a dissolution.

The term “dead duck” referring to politicians wasn’t something new in 1886.  History shows that in 1866, Andrew Johnson referred to John W. Forney, publisher of Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, as a dead duck.  In fact, when the New York Times reported on it on February 28, 1866, it came with the headline “Degree Conferred” and read in part:

On Thursday last, President, ANDREW JOHNSON, of the Union College, Washington City, conferred the honorary title of “dead duck” upon JOHN W. FORNEY, Esq. This exaltation creates some surprise, since it is not known that the recipient was ever in holy orders, and some go so far as to say that the President is making game of him.

Back on May, 15, 1829 the Glasgow Herald reported a very strange thing indeed.  It stated that the following had been published in the Dublin Morning Register:

In opposition to the dictum of Judge Littledale, that a dead duck was not a duck, Mr. Serjeant Adams has decided that a dead rabbit is a rabbit.  The vitality of a duck is one vitality, and the vitality of a rabbit is another vitality.

The phrase “dead duck” is an Americanism from the 1830s, originally it was political slang referring to a person who has lost influence or power and was therefore useless.  In fact, it was used in conversation without hesitation by the 1840s. 

There are even Letters to the Editor such as the one dated August 29, 1839 and published in the Hartford (CT) Courant newspaper.  The editor prefaced its publication by stating, “The following communication was received two or three weeks since.  The subject of it was considered rather small game for the writer, and it was laid on the table.  Other considerations now induce us to give it a place.” 

The author of the Letter to the Editor describes the accusations made by another party with regards to the next General Election in this way:

Respecting this accusation, he let off his popgun at the dead duck.

So somewhere between 1829 a dead duck that was not a duck came to mean — within a decade — an ineffectual person.  How that happened is something Idiomation could not track down.

What Idiomation did learn is that the word dead comes from the Old English word dead which hails from the Germanic word *dauthaz” from the 13th century.  Somewhere between “dead drunk” of 1599 and “dead on” of 1889, the phrase “dead duck” came into existence and has been around ever since.

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