You have the right to remain our top story for the next six months….
Dear Word Detective: All the media and late-night jokesters are having a field day with the latest OJ escapade, of course. Several times I’ve heard or seen the phrase “this time they’ve got him dead to rights,” and I think we all understand what it means. The nearest thing to it in your archives is “caught redhanded,” which is not quite the same thing, nor is “they’ve got the goods on him this time!” But when I (figuratively) stand back and look at “got him dead to rights” it seems a rather strange construct — don’t you think? Anyway, did a specific author (like Mark Twain, or A. Conan Doyle, maybe) originate the phrase? Or just when and where did it come from? — Ken in Houston.
OJ who? Oh, right. Gosh, you know, there are times I almost regret my decision to stop watching TV news a couple of years ago. This isn’t one of them. Not that my tele-exile does much good. Despite my best efforts to avoid details of the Simpson kerfuffle, the basic facts of it seem to have seeped into my noggin by osmosis. Perhaps my fillings are picking up Fox News again.
In any case, just going by what the voices in my head tell me, Mr. Simpson does seem to have been caught “dead to rights,” which is to say that there is no reasonable argument that he did not do what he is said to have done and that, in a just universe, he would be, as the legal scholars put it, “toast.”
“Dead to rights” is indeed an odd expression, dating at least to the mid-19th century, when it was first collected in a glossary of underworld slang (“Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon,” by George Matsell, 1859). The first part of the phrase, “dead,” is a slang use of the word to mean “absolutely, without doubt.” This use is more commonly heard in the UK, where it dates back to the 16th century, than in the US. “Dead” meaning “certainly” is based on the earlier use of “dead” to mean, quite logically, “with stillness suggestive of death, absolutely motionless,” a sense we still use when we say someone is “dead asleep.” The “absolutely, without doubt” sense is also found in “dead broke” and “dead certain.”
The “to rights” part of the phrase is a bit more complicated. “To rights” has been used since the 14th century to mean “in a proper manner,” or, later, “in proper condition or order,” a sense we also use in phrases such as “to set to rights,” meaning “to make a situation correct and orderly” (“Employed all the afternoon in my chamber, setting things and papers to rights,” Samuel Pepys, 1662). In the phrase “caught dead to rights,” the connotation is that every formality required by the law has been satisfied, and that the apprehension is what crooks in the UK used to call a “fair cop,” a clean and justifiable arrest. (“Cop,” from the Latin “capere,” to seize, has long been used as slang for “to grab” as well as slang for a police officer.) Of course, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cop and the lips of the jury, so we shall see. Wake me when it’s over.