Death Nail

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IT sent in a link to a web forum post that includes the following (emphasis added):

However as I have mentioned a few days ago, data could well be the death nail for Ovivo, as I am sure Vodafone will limit the data bandwidth they can have, so the more customers Ovivo get the worse it will become. Who knows what deal they have on volume with Vodafone.

This one was discussed over at the Eggcorn Database back in 2005.  "Knell" is not a word that most people know; and ringing a bell when someone dies is not something that most people have experienced; so "death nail" makes a lot more sense than "death knell" does. Maybe it's the proverbial last nail in the coffin, or maybe the imaged interaction is more spectacular and bloodier, but either way, it works. As usual, the only problem is that "death knell" got there first.

Here are a few examples from published books:

O.G. Sorokhtin et al., Evolution of Earth and its Climate, 2010:

Richard Brian, Children of the Light, 2008:

Ken Ham, How Could a Loving God: Powerful Answers on Suffering, 2007:

Daniel R. Coleman, What a Fine Mess!: Responding to the Economic Chaos of Government, 2010:

Philip L. Tite, Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity, 2009:

The first and the last of those were published by Elsevier and Brill, respectively, and so probably went through a copy-editor.

Here are some newsy examples:

Josh Hill, "Samsung unveils curved 105-inch UltraHD 4K resolution TV", Fansided 1/6/2014:

They say that television is killing the cinema, and this is one giant death nail considering you can now just take the theater home with you next time you head out to Best Buy.

"Ken Sibley retires from radio station KVMA after 52 years", Magnolia Reporter 12/31/2013:

This prompts Sibley to launch into a common theme of his regarding the longevity of small-town radio. “The thing is, everybody has tried to put the death nail in local radio, and radio in general, for years,” he said. “And in small communities you’ll never be able to do it because you can’t get that information anywhere else. You listen to the Shreveport stations, you won’t get the lunch menus of the local schools.”

Chris Pinkard, "LOTD keeps cheer, despite weather woes", Blytheville Courier News 12/24/2013:

"Our goal, year after year, remains the same, and that's to draw in big crowds and be able to share some holiday spirit with them. We're still seeing lots of children, and the joy of the kids is why we do it," Hubbard said. "This won't be a death nail for us — it won't close us down, by any means."



  1. Gunnar H said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    I like how Tite has combined two expressions into "death nail in the coffin" (which may be how it passed the editor).

  2. FM said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    I'm convinced that without mental contamination from "last nail in the coffin", this would be much less common.

    Also what is the meaning of "tatters" in that Ken Ham excerpt? Someone find me a creationist who's not a terrible writer. Actually that's OK, you don't have to.

  3. Pia said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    Tyrannosaur in "excruciating" pain — "final death nail for his Christianity" — could there be an association with crucifixion?

  4. J Silk said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    I can speak at least from extensive experience with Brill that most things do*not* go through an editor, so in this case one can blame only the authors (not, I confess, that my experience with editors always reassures me that all of them would do much better, I'm afraid).

    [(myl) I guess I can't claim to be surprised, much less shocked, but you'd think that €136,00 per copy would buy something more than a few euros per copy worth of typesetting and a place in the company's advertising circulars…

    For some further thoughts along these lines, see Martin Haspelmath, "A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps", 1/12/2014:

    Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. […] What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? They used to print and distribute books, but we don’t really need this anymore (due to technological changes, print-on-demand services are more efficient than large printruns anyway). They used to advertise books and organize the sale of books, but from the authors’ perspective, it would be much better if our books were freely available. […] Publishers normally expect that the manuscript of your book is not freely downloadable from your website, so by “publishing” a book, you actually make it less public.

    (Not that the book in question is in the field of linguistics, but the issues are the same in theology and in every other field, as far as I can tell.)

    As Martin points out, the only supports for this situation are now habit and prestige:

    So why do people still publish books with the traditional commercial publishers, instead of just putting their works on their website, or making them available via sites like ResearchGate or The reason is not that this would benefit the readers – the reason is that it benefits the authors. What authors primarily get from the publishers is prestige, and this is the most urgent thing they need. Prestige is what builds careers, and without careers there’s no academic linguistics. Everything else comes after that. This is why people publish grammars of small languages at prices that are totally unaffordable to the speakers, and unaffordable also to many linguists who would like to read them. The authors don’t feel good about it (I certainly felt awful when my grammar of Lezgian was published, which costs EUR 229.00), but they often accept it as a necessary evil.

    He proposes a solution, which everyone should read and think about.]

  5. Karl Narveson said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    Are there dialects in which knell actually sounds the same as nail? I know many American Southerners prolong the e in knell and give it an offglide so that it sounds more like my 'nail' than my 'knell', which would help the mishearing get started.

  6. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    probably went through a copy-editor.

    I'd say they went by an editor.

  7. Margaret Dean said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    I'd say they went by an editor.

    With an audible "whoosh."

  8. DC said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    "Are there dialects in which knell actually sounds the same as nail?"

    Not sure if any actual *dialects* do it yet but my daughter merged [ɛ] and [ei] to [ɛ] before [l] until she was about 10 or 11. Then she started distinguishing them. But during that time she definitely pronounced 'nail' like '(k)nell', 'sale' like 'sell', etc. I suspect this was from a dialect she was exposed to as a young child. (We're from California.)

  9. Timothy Friese said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    I for one couldn't figure out what the 'acorn' to this 'eggcorn' was until I got to the comments. Pretty opaque to me!

  10. Nathan said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    There actually are quite a few people with a "fell-fail merger". The Wikipedia article English-language vowel changes before historic /l/ says it's common in the South. I hear it a lot in Utah, but it's by no means universal here.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    "Sale" often sounds like "cell" to me here in New Mexico, mostly from Anglos. But since I have a very disyllabic "sale", I might not be the best judge.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    I heard this merger on my one and only visit to Texas, around 1966.

    Around the same time there was an article in the New Yorker about "aigbread", which would normally be written "eggbread", somewhere in the Southern US. Since that I have sometimes heard "aiggs" and "laigs" from some Canadian speakers with no apparent link to the US.

  13. julie lee said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    @ marie-lucie:
    I can believe "aigbread" and "laigs" because the e sound in "knell", "bed", "bet" was an impossible one for me when I first learned English, since there is no such sound in Mandarin, my first language. Mandarin has the ai sound in words such as fei, bei, etc. and the "a" sound (as in English fan, ban, Mandarin lan, kan, ) I had the hardest time learning the e sound in bed, let. For a long time I couldn't distinguish the e sound ( in bet, bed) from the ai sound ( in bait, raid) .

  14. Ellen K. said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

    "aig" and "laig", however, relate to pronunciation variation with those specific words that doesn't happen with other -eg words.

  15. zbs said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    For them what curious

    It seems this battle is, in addition to being excitingly implausible, anachronistic.

  16. SlideSF said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    @Ellen K. – I am a native of Wisconsin, although I haven't lived there for over 30 years. I am always struck when I go back for a visit the way grocery store checkers ask me what kind of "baig" I want, as well as the way people say "paig" for peg, "raig" for rag, "waig" for wag, etc. So no, at least there it is not a case of only certain words being pronounced that way. It is more a broadening of the short 'a' sound and it occurs generally, not just when followed by a 'g'. I am always particularly appalled (yes, I can't get over a sense of judgment when it comes to my native accent) when someone wants to get out the "cyamra" to take pictures.

  17. parse said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    I don't think you would find the usage everybody has tried to put the death nail in local radio with the original expression. Putting a knell in something doesn't make sense, while putting a nail does. It's interesting to see the eggcorn extending the expression somewhere the acorn wouldn't likely go.

  18. dw said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

    Allow me to be the first to peeve about your use of "proverbial". Thank you.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    Ellen K: There are not very many words in -eg. Perhaps the "ai" is more common in nouns? I think I have heard of "kaigs" of beer. But perhaps the verb "beg" does not get the "ai".

  20. DC said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

    My dialect regularly raises [ɛ] to [e]~[ei] before [g] and [ŋ]. So to me 'plague' and 'egg' rhyme. I've heard AAEV dialects that also do this before [k].

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

    Seems to me that in the last example (Blytheville Courier News), "death nail" is used pretty much as "death knell" would be (in contrast to most of the other examples). This leads me to suspect that Hubbard actually said "death knell", which Pinkard transcribed as "death nail".

    "Death nail in the coffin" strikes me as a particularly unreflective turn of phrase, since presumably death is a fait accompli well before the nails go in the coffin. Perhaps the phrase being reached for in some of these instances is more along the lines of "stake through the heart", and "death nail" is taken as a rough approximation of that.

  22. maidhc said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

    Here's an example of what I think of as the usual use of the phrase "driving a nail in my coffin", originating in Texas, 1944. However, I think it was a common phrase even then.

    I remember people referring to cigarettes as "coffin nails" also.

  23. JS said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 1:05 am

    I had always associated ei>ɛ/_l and its partner i>ɪ/_l with AAVE and certain (other) southern dialects, but (as confirmed above) have recently noticed both in the speech of some west coast folks.

  24. Peter Erwin said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    The first and the last of those were published by Elsevier and Brill, respectively, and so probably went through a copy-editor.

    Since the first book is riddled with stylistic awkwardness, typos, and outright grammatical errors (from the same page as the quote: "As Earth cooled down, covered herself ever thicker crust and compacted"; "as of a drying-off apple"; "Anry Bekerel discovered in 1996 the phenomenon of radioactivity"[*]; "It was found later that Earth crust contained"; "100 MMY"; "One of the reasons of its appearance"; "Majority of geologists and geophysicists were total adepts to the radiogenic hypothesis"), I'd be a bit skeptical that much of anything, other than perhaps some spell-checking, was done.

    [*] Which should of course be "Henri Becquerel discovered in 1896 …"

    [(myl) Which again suggests the question of what value the publisher has added to justify the price of $190 (paper) or $180 (ebook).]

  25. Martha said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    DC: "My dialect regularly raises [ɛ] to [e]~[ei] before [g] and [ŋ]. So to me 'plague' and 'egg' rhyme. I've heard AAEV dialects that also do this before [k]."

    In which dialects do they not rhyme? I have them rhyming, but with [ɛ].

  26. GeorgeW said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

    @Martha: They don't rhyme in mine – Southern AmE.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    There's two issues. Whether vague and plague rhyme with beg and dreg (etc), and, if not, whether egg and leg rhyme with plague/vague or with beg/dreg. For me, despite their spelling, egg and leg rhyme with vague and plague. If I understand write, some people are saying all these words rhyme in some accents/dialects.

  28. Ellen K. said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

    And perhaps a third issue of understanding other accents. Someone's "beg" may sound like "baig" to me (or, alternatively plague like "pleg") without the two being merged in their accent.

  29. DC said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    "whether egg and leg rhyme with plague/vague or with beg/dreg."

    For me all 6 rhyme.

  30. Ellen K. said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    DC: Thus the "and, if not".

  31. David Morris said,

    January 19, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

    Peevers who claim that current meaning must adhere to original etymology (eg 'literally') rarely claim that 'excruciating pain' can only result from being crucified. Jesus might have said that the pain was literally excruciating.

  32. stanbot said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 12:51 am

    I grew up in Western NC and now live in Eastern TN. It is very consistent among native speakers to pronounce any -ale sounding words as -ell.

    These words all sound the same (the latter of each pair) around here:

    sale/sell, fail/fell, whale/well, nail/knell, bale/bell

    I have also heard people talk about a "hellstorm" (hail storm).

    I've seen signs for:
    "Yard Sell"

    Used car lot signs reading:
    "We buy

    Also common, but from different sounds, people using "are" for "our" in speech. This crops up in written communications as well:
    "Don't forget to bring something for are potluck this Saturday".

    Strangely, the -in/-en convergence has not been confused in written form that I have ever seen. Although people have started saying "stick pin" and "writin' pin" to clarify which they mean when speaking; that clarification is left to spelling when written down.

  33. Richard Bell said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    I work in the fastener aisle of a large hardware store. I hear the word "nails" more often than most people do. Men and older women call them "nails"; young women most often say "nells." (And by the way, our drawer containing cap nuts is labeled "eggcorn nuts.")

  34. un malpaso said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    my thoughts:
    1) Being from the South (Atlanta GA actually, so I don't have much of an accent myself, it's pretty generic middle American), we are definitely surrounded by dialect groups that, to lesser or greater extent, pronounce "knell" as "nail". It sounds a bit more Appalachian to me than Deep Southern, but that vowel change is present in local drawls, no question… sometimes to an extent that almost sounds like a parody of itself.

    2) This has got to be one of the few cases where the "eggcorn" form of the idiom actually sounds more vivid and appropriate (now that bells don't really knell any more, even when they are being rung"). Especially with the Christianity resonance, as mentioned above by @Pia.

    Interestingly though, I have never noticed seeing "death nail" in any written document until now. And I haven't really heard "death knell" itself much in conversation… it seems to be just slightly too highfalutin and semi-archaic I guess.

  35. Ellen K. said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    Stanbot: Why do you, on the one hand, say sale and sell are pronounced the same, but, instead of saying "are" and "our" are pronounced the same you claim they are using "are" for "our" in speech? Which, of course, they aren't; it's a pronunciation issue, not a word choice issue.

  36. stanbot said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    Ellen K:

    I'm sorry if it wasn't clear. I was not saying the situation was different at all. The article was about "nail" vs "knell" so I started with examples I hear daily of -ale words pronounced like -ell words. Then I went on to our/are as an example of the similar scenario with different sounds. People pronounce "our" as "are". I have also seen it written as "are" when they mean "our". (The context is clear in what they have written, the pronunciation has just led to people to select the wrong spelling.) I have yet to see anyone use our for are, but I imagine that has more to do with the fact that are is a very common word used in much higher frequency than the other words given as examples.

    Then I mentioned how those examples were different than -en/-in words. The pronunciations have merged to a single -in sound, but people rarely mix those words up in writing. I have never seen "tin dollars" or "pin and paper" in writing.

  37. Mar Rojo said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 4:09 am

    That "as I have mentioned a few days ago" threw me.

  38. Ted said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick: I have always understood the expression "nail in the coffin" to mean a further step that removes any residual possibility that the coffin's metaphorical occupant might re-emerge into the land of the living. It was on its last legs; it died; and the nail in the coffin ensures that it'll stay there even if by some miracle it comes back to life.

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