Definition: To be completely, irretrievably dead, or for an inanimate object; completely useless
Example: No matter how many times he turned the key, Gerry’s piece of garbage Chevy refused to start. It was as dead as a doornail.
This is one of the oldest idioms that can be found in print, going back to the fourteenth century.
But why doornails as a comparison for death?
To better explain the reason, maybe we should look at exactly what a doornail was back then. If you go into your local Home Depot or B&Q today, you’d be unlikely to see a big bucket labelled ‘doornails’.
Doors would have been heavy slabs of wood, often with iron reinforcements. The nails used to bind them together were long, flat headed beasts that would have been driven through the door, with the protruding end bent over and hammered flat. In the 1300’s, all iron hardware would have been valuable. There was no mass production. Each piece was hand made. So none was wasted. If a door had reached the end of its usefulness, all the hardware would have been stripped from it for reuse. However, the doornails, having been bent and hammered would be unusable. They were useless. They were dead.
Well, its a theory.
There have been other ‘dead as’ phrases. There was ‘dead as mutton‘ which has fallen out of fashion, just like mutton. And there is the still popular ‘dead as a dodo‘ which uses the comparison to the world’s most famous extinction. It also reminds us as to how much, we, as a race, are screwing up the planet. If we’re not careful, we’ll all be as dead as a dodo as well. Or even a doornail.
Definition: Being so overcome with doubt that you do not proceed
Example: Peter got cold feet over his upcoming wedding to Maria. After all, they’d only been on two dates.
Why icy toes have anything to do with uncertainty is absolutely unknown. Even its first use is a source of debate. It is usually accepted as being first used by author Stephen Crane in 1896, but many earlier examples have been touted. Some decades earlier. Some centuries.
Cold feet is most often used like in the example, in terms of somebody uncertain as to whether they want to proceed with an upcoming wedding.
When Iddy was about to get married to his second cousin Hilda, he had a raft of symptoms. Upset stomach. Cold sweats. The shakes. Crying eyeballs. Dry mouth. But his feet remained surprisingly warm. He cured all his symptons by coming to Earth before the wedding.
Definition: Money or investments set aside for future use.
Example: Ned had been saving up a nest egg for decades, for an early retirement. Or a trip to Vegas.
Farmers have been putting eggs in chickens’ nests for centuries. Now, that sounds wrong. Surely Iddy means that farmers have been taking eggs from chickens’ nests for centuries. Yes, they have been doing that as well. Putting an egg, whether real or ceramic, in a chicken’s nest encourages it to lay more. Strange but true.
So, our idiom ‘nest egg’ refers to that practise, putting something aside in order for it to grow for future collection. It first appeared in print with that meaning in 1686.
Definition: Your emotions are clearly shown in your expression
Example: Jim’s disappointment was written all over his face. He had wanted that first edition Star Wars comic so badly.
Iddy could not find any origin theories for this idiom. He supposes the reasons behind it are fairly evident. Your expression can be read as clearly as the written word.
Iddy hasn’t written just any old thing on his face for this demonstration. Extra smug points to you if you can identify the classic novel opening page he has transcribed on his own green skin.
Definition: To be in difficulty.
Example: Archie was in a bit of a pickle after asking both Betty and Veronica to the Riverdale Dance. Good ol’ Archie. He never learns…
The pickle referred to here is the saucy, sometimes spicy condiment popular in the UK and India, not the little cucumbers in vinegar more popular in the US. Sorry, Iddy. You’re using the wrong one there!
To be precise, it refers to the stewed fruits that make up a pickle. Like that fruit, the unfortunate individual ‘in a pickle‘ is entirely disoriented and mixed up. It’s closely related to the nineteenth century idiom ‘in a stew’. Same idea. Same meaning.
There is another, more grisly explanation kicking around, but it is thought to be untrue. It claims that the phrase comes from gruesome tales of bodies being pickled for preservation in centuries past. Yes, much more lurid and much more interesting. But not a shred of evidence to support it.
It certainly does not relate to a specific case, that of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Some claim he was pickled after his death at the the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, so his body could be returned to England. But he wasn’t. To be a stickler about picklers, Nelson wasn’t pickled at all. He was preserved in brandy.
Sometimes the idiom is used in a slightly expanded version: ‘in a pretty pickle‘. Iddy doesn’t think there’s anything pretty about it at all…