To be “dead as a doornail” is for a person or thing to be really, absolutely, for sure, dead. To be “fit as a fiddle” is to be in excellent health and physical fitness.
What do these still popular expressions have in common? Not their meanings, which are just about diametrically opposite of each other.
No, both of these figures of speech use alliteration – hang on, we’re going back to high school English class, only this time stay awake – which is the repeating of initial letter sounds in key words to add emphasis and a sense of liveliness to a figure of speech.
And until I started thinking about “dead as a doornail” and “fit as a fiddle” I didn’t realize how many common sayings employ alliteration to give the phrases a little “punch” while also making them easier to remember.
Sylvester was known to use the alliterative exclamation “Sufferin’ Succotash” to express a combination of surprise and irritation. Actually, the phrase came along way before the cartoonists at Warner Bros. created Sylvester in 1945. In the previous century there was a trend in English-speaking nations to convert curses that were considered profane into non-offensive catchphrases. In this way, “Sufferin’ succotash” became a substitute for “Suffering Savior.”
Alliteration – It’s Everywhere!
Besides ”dead as a doornail” and “fit as a fiddle” here is just a small list of other expressions that contain alliteration:
Busy as a bee
Get your goat
Give up the ghost
Good as gold
Hem and haw
Home sweet home
Know-Nothings (Note it’s the sounds of the letters that matter.)
Leave in the Lurch
Living the life
Mad as a March hare
Make a mountain out of a molehill
Method to the madness
Naughty but nice
Neck and neck
Pleased as punch
Right as rain
Ride roughshod over
Sufferin’ succotash! (Remember Warner Bros.’s Sylvester the Cat?)
Trick or treat
But I digress.
Origins: “Dead as a Doornail”
“Dead as a doornail” is a very old phrase, appearing first in written works going back to 1350, and even then it had the same meaning it has today. Certainly by the time Shakespeare used it in King Henry VI, Part 2, 1592, it was widely understood.
In times past, doors were made of several planks of wood. Etymologists believe the expression “dead as a doornail” refers to the long, big-headed nails that were used to join a door’s timbers together.
To secure the door’s planks, doornails were pounded through both the horizontal and vertical boards and then, to provide added strength and to make sure the nails would not fall out over time, the exposed shafts of the nails would be bent back and pounded into the crosspieces.
Keep in mind that back in the day, all metal objects, including doornails, were handmade and relatively expensive, and every attempt was made to constantly recycle and reuse these objects. But because bent doornails were difficult to salvage and unbend, they had no afterlife. They were considered “dead.” Dead as a doornail. Hence the expression.
William of Ockham (Occam) 1287 – 1347) was an English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian. While considered one of the most brilliant men of his time, today he is known primarily for his scientific formulation known as Occam’s Razor, which argues that when faced with a number of competing hypotheses, the simplest, most direct one should be considered first. Sean Connery played a character modeled after William of Ockham in the movie The Name of the Rose (1986).
Well, that’s one theory. There are a few more floating around the web, basically in the same vein. However, applying Occam’s razor, I’m inclined to believe the simplest explanation.
It goes like this. Doornails, especially those used in big buildings like castles, cathedrals, and monasteries, were massive, compared with other nails in use at the time. They weighed a lot. They were dense, inert. They were dead, as in “dead weight”, and felt that way in one’s hand. They were dead alright, dead as, well, doornails.
Origins: “Fit as a Fiddle”
“Fit as a Fiddle” as an expression has been around since at least the 1600s – only then it didn’t refer to one’s health, but rather a person or object’s suitability, the word “fit” understood as in the sense of “fit like a glove.” Shortly thereafter ”fit” obtained its connections with physical wellness and it is in this sense that the expression is still used today.
No one seems to really know how “fiddle” became part of the expression. Some have speculated that because, for the most part, a fiddle (violin) is held tightly tucked under the chin of its player, it can be said to be a tight fit.
Others have pointed to the nature of the violin itself, that in a lot of cases it represents a highly crafted piece of musical technology, regardless of when it was constructed, with all its pieces carefully joined and fit together.
Whatever its origins, the main reason “fiddle” appears in the phrase is probably because it completes an alliteration with “fit,” and which like other alliterations, rolls nicely off the tongue and sticks in one’s mind.
For people of a certain movie viewing age, “fit as a fiddle” will always be associated with the exuberant choreography on display in this scene from the musical Singing in the Rain in the song Fit as a Fiddle (1952).