Meanings and Origins of Phrases

From Phrases.org. Here’s an example of what you’ll find on the site.

As dead as a door-nail

Meaning

Dead – devoid of life (when applied to people, plants or animals). Finished with – unusable (when applied to inanimate objects).

Origin
This is old – at least 14th century. There’s a reference to it in print in 1350:

“For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenail.”

Shakespeare used it in King Henry VI, 1590:

As ‘X’ as ‘Y’ similes refer to some property and then give an example of something well-known as exhibiting that property, e.g. ‘as white as snow’. Why door-nails are cited as a particular example of deadness isn’t clear. Door-nails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times for strength and more recently as decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through and then bend over the protruding end to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching. This may be the source of the ‘deadness’, as such a nail would be unusable afterwards.