Dead Reckoning

Thomas Paikeday t.paikeday at SYMPATICO.CA
Tue Jul 24 21:47:08 UTC 2001

About the derivation, OED, 31.a. says "[Arising out of various earlier
senses]" which may not be much help, but I guess that's how new meanings
come about. Seems difficult to sort out what may be a morass of
meanings. As in the 1993 Shorter Oxford: "21. absolute, complete,
entire, thorough, downright; unerring, certain, sure; exact. L16." Note
the three groupings (corresponding to OED, 31, a, b, c) separated by
semicolons. The newer (1998) The New Oxford Dictionary of English (which
espouses a new lexicography which I have advocated in my preface to The
Penguin Canadian Dictionary, 1990; See also The Cambridge International
Dictionary of English, 1995) gives short shrift to the list of
definitions: "2. [attrib.] complete; absolute: we sat in dead silence."
I like this. I believe real-life usage is more important for dictionary
users than abstract definitions, hence (my horn comes in handy here) the
plenitude of examples in The NYT Everyday Dictionary, 1982, and The
User's(R) Webster, 2000: "exact or unerring: I hit it dead center; with
dead accuracy; He's a dead shot with a rifle; It's a dead certainty;
Your smile is a dead giveaway." The answer to Jesse's question should be
found in 16th century literature or perhaps even earlier. Is the Early
Modern English Dictionary out yet?


Jesse Sheidlower wrote:
> > There's also "dead red", "dead spit", "dead to rights", etc., all
> > apparently corresponding to AHD4's sense 12c, 'exact' and possibly
> > its cousins:
> >
> > 12a. Sudden; abrupt: a dead stop.
> > b. Complete; utter: dead silence.
> > c. Exact; unerring. the dead center of a target.
> >
> > I'm not sure how this sense or bundle of senses derives from the
> > standard (= 'no longer alive') one, although speculation is rife.
> > Anyone?
> I had always thought that these various "dead"s were in the broad
> sense 'absolute; complete', in reference to death being the final
> step in, uh, life. There's a lot of history, both linguistic and
> otherwise, behind this viewpoint.
> Jesse Sheidlower

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