Dear Word Detective: I just used the expression “deader than a doornail.” Why is a doornail dead? — Dick Stacy.
Beats me. Too many bacon cheeseburgers? Texting while driving? Mowing the lawn during a thunderstorm? I almost lost an in-law that way a few years ago. Heck, I almost lost myself installing a window air-conditioner under similar circumstances a couple of years later. Boom. Zap. And I haven’t been able to balance my checkbook ever since.
Of course, doornails aren’t alive in the normal sense anyway. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “door-nail” as “A large-headed nail, with which doors were formerly studded for strength, protection, or ornamentation.” The term “door-nail” first appeared in print in the 14th century, long before home alarm systems, when having a thick, strong door was your best defense against the unpleasantness outside getting in.
“Dead as a doornail” (or, I suppose, “deader than a doornail”) means, of course, utterly and completely dead, whether figuratively (“The Congo treaty may now be regarded as being as dead as a doornail,” 1884) or literally defunct in the Monty Python Dead Parrot sense (“This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”).
Interestingly, the earliest use of “dead as a doornail” found in print (so far) is from 1362, just twelve years after “doornail” itself first appeared, and Shakespeare used it in several of his plays. The next few centuries saw the rise of several other “dead as” phrases (including “dead as a dodo,” “dead as mutton,” and “dead as a herring,” meaning smoked herring), but none proved as popular as “dead as a doornail.” Of course, the “doornail” version had a linguistic advantage over the “herring” and “mutton” phrases, being alliterative with two words beginning with hard consonants, the pop-speak equivalent of being given three out of five winning lottery numbers as a head start.
But “dead as a dodo” sported the same consonants, so many people have wondered over the years if there might be (or have been) some actual logic to “dead as a doornail” that would explain its popularity. Two theories have thus been offered to explain the phrase. One is that the “doornail” in this case is actually a very large-headed nail (or metal plate) affixed to the outside of the door on which the swinging door-knocker strikes. In this theory, the “doornail” would be dead because it had been struck so often. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the plate beneath such door-knockers was ever known as a “doornail,” so this theory is unlikely to be true.
The other theory makes a bit more sense. It is said that when doors were constructed in days of yore, carpenters used long, stout nails to hold them firmly together (which, as we’ve seen from the OED definition of “doornail,” is true). This theory holds that the nails were long enough to be driven entirely through the door to the interior side, where they were bent flat (or “cinched,” as carpenters say) to ensure that they would never work loose (and could not be removed from the outside). The nails, goes this theory, would then be “dead” in the sense that they would not move and could never be re-used. This theory actually makes perfect sense and may well explain the original logic of the phrase. It’s not a slam-dunk certainty, but, given that we’re talking about the 14th century, it makes a lot more sense than most theories about phrases that old.
... and your little dog, too.
All right, already, this isn’t November. November was a bad month anyway. Bad enough that I forgot to put the requisite snarky taglines at the head of each column, and I didn’t notice until a half-hour after I posted these. Too late now. Anyway, there will be a December Issue coming down the pike in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Honest.
Moving right along, I do not, believe it or not, own any sort of tablet computer or smart phone (crowd gasps, screams, begins stampede to exit).
But I happen to know (Thanks, Google Analytics! Bestest massive privacy violation ever!) that many of you read TWD on on your cell phones, tablets, microwave ovens or mood crystals (I know you’re out there). I also know because you’ve taken to writing me to say how cruddy TWD looks on your phone. So, stepping briskly past how bizarre I find that last sentence, I went looking for an “app” I could offer you folk who evidently cannot afford a real computer, and discovered that cooking one up would either require a lot of money I most certainly do not have (and would send to the gas company if I did), or would take forever to figure out on my own. Drat. Double drat with extra cheese.
But since I can’t sleep knowing that even one reader is suffering eyestrain trying to read my deathless prose on one of Steve Jobs’ tiny cash machines, I searched around until I found a temporary (just kidding, it’s probably permanent) solution in the form of a WordPress plugin that produces a “mobile” version of this site. It’s supposed to automatically detect most flavors of mobile device, but if it doesn’t, you can click the links at the foot of any page on this site. And if you find yourself trapped in cramped mobile hell and wish you were here in the bright, open air, there’s a link at the bottom of that mobile page that will bring you to the regular version. The search box is also at the bottom of the page, although there is a mysterious and pointless “search results” menu item at the top. I know what glitch put it there, but I can’t get rid of it.
Anyone up for a consumer tip? A few years ago we had to buy a new furnace on account of the fact that the old one dated back to WWI and broke every few months. I also needed AC because the MS makes me sensitive to high temperatures (“sensitive” in this case means my vision dims and I fall over). So we scraped together money and bought a high-efficiency furnace. End of Act One. In Act Two, we notice that the furnace, when it’s cold out, keeps coming on for a few minutes, going off, and then starting again about 30 seconds later. That ain’t good. So, long story short, Kathy Googles around for a few days (literally) and discovers that tons of people are complaining of the same thing. And they’ve had their furnaces serviced multiple times, but the problem persists. If it persists long enough, it turns out, your furnace burns itself out and you get to buy a new one. Bummer.
But then she finds a page put up by a furnace repair place that provides an intriguing clue to the problem. In many cases, the culprit is not the furnace per se, but the filter. People buy an expensive new furnace and figure that they should spring for the fancy-schmanzy high-priced filters that remove micro-micron dust and last for several months to boot. This turns out to be a bad idea because the furnace has to work harder to force the air through, overheats, shuts itself down, and starts again after it cools down a smidgen. What you want to do, they say, is buy the cheapest, flimsiest filter you can find. And so we did, and the furnace works way better now, never does that on-off thing, and keeps the house much warmer, too. Who knew?
Lastly, thanks to all the folks who have supported this site through contributions and subscriptions. Subscriptions, by the way, make lovely gifts, and also feed the vast, lumbering herds of cats around here, so one subscription actually makes two people happy, though in most cases only one of them is covered in fur.
And now, on with the show…
Dear Word Detective: I grew up in eastern North Carolina. When talking to us kids, my parents frequently used the word “mommick” (meaning “to ruin,” mess up, or shred like a cat on draperies). “Stop fighting! You’re mommicking my new sofa!” I’ve never heard the word anywhere else but have always thought it useful when speaking to dogs or children. Even people who’ve never heard the word before seem to know what it means. Is it a regional word? What’s the origin? — Donna Furman.
Eastern North Carolina? Just for fun, you should tell people you’re from Southern Eastern North Carolina. Then, while they’re trying to picture how that would possibly work, you can go through their pockets. It must be nice to come from somewhere where folks use colorful dialectical terms. Where I grew up, in suburban Connecticut fifty miles from New York City, we just said “mess up” or “tear up” in such cases. Every so often my mother would use a term she’d acquired in her childhood in Ohio (such as “scunner” for “grudge,” actually a Scots dialect word). But, for the most part, if you’ve seen “Leave It to Beaver,” you’ve seen (and heard) my childhood.
So I had never encountered “mommick,” and when I popped it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I discovered a number of interesting things. First off, the OED directs you from “mommick” to “mammock,” of which “mommick” is considered one of several forms (including “mommock,” “mummuck,” and “mammick”). The OED defines “mammock” as a verb to mean “to break, cut, or tear into fragments or shreds,” and as a noun to mean “a scrap or shred, a broken or torn piece.” The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) notes that use of the term in the US is primarily in the South, where as a noun it can also mean “a mess” and, as a verb, “to beat up.”
According to the OED, “mammock” first appeared as a noun in the early 16th century with the sense of “broken or torn piece” (“Whan mammockes was your meate, With moldy brede to eate,” circa 1529). The verb showed up about a century later, first found around 1616, in Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus (“Hee did so set his teeth, and teare it. Oh, I warrant how he mammockt it.”). Both those early examples refer to eating, and the OED offers the logical suggestion that “mammock” was onomatopoeic or “echoic” in origin, intended to mimic the sound of someone chewing something quite energetically and thoroughly. The “break, tear or mess up” senses of the verb would then be a natural extension of that literal “chew into pieces” definition.
Interestingly, the OED, in its etymological note for “mammock” as a noun, refers to the earlier English Dialect Dictionary, which, in addition to defining it as “a broken piece” or “a mess,” offers the definition “a scarecrow; a ‘guy’; an untidily or absurdly dressed person.” (The “guy” meant is an antiquated British term for a dummy or effigy, drawn from the name of Guy Fawkes, effigies of whom are still burned on Guy Fawkes Day. Google “gunpowder plot” for the details. And yes, that’s the same “guy” we use today to mean “fellow.”)
That leap from the “shred, small piece” sense of “mammock” to a meaning of “scarecrow, weird-looking person” is difficult to explain, but I have a theory. I suspect that “mammock” when used in the “scarecrow” sense is actually a completely different word, a variant of “mammet,” an archaic term for a dummy or puppet in use in the 15th century. “Mammet” is derived from the Old French “Mahomet,” a version of the name Mohammed, referring to the founder of Islam. Use of “mammet” in this sense, and earlier as a synonym for “idol,” was due to, as the OED puts it, “the common medieval Christian belief that the prophet Muhammad was worshiped as a god.” So the evolution of “mammet” would have been from “false god” to “idol” to “scarecrow, doll, puppet.” The term “mammet” is also still used in regional English dialects to mean both “baby or child” and “hateful person; weakling.”