Speaking in Terms of the Dead

“Do you think,” my son Jim asks me, “you might be home early?”

I contemplate the event I’m about to attend. It’s one I helped plan, and by rights, I need to stay after it concludes and make sure things are orderly and well-wrapped-up.

“No,” I tell Jim, and I am rueful. “I think I will be there until the last dog dies.”

There’s a startled silence. Then, “What?” says Jim. “Eeeuw!  What does THAT mean?”

“Well, you know,” I say, taken aback. Can it be I’ve never used that expression before? It’s one I grew up with, and, like so many turns of phrase we regularly use, never questioned. “It means…well. It means I’ll be there until the very end.”

“Ooooo-kay,” says Jim, and he gives me an odd look and leaves the room.  And he leaves me thinking: where DOES that odd phrase come from?

I type, “…till the last dog dies…” into a search engine.  And my goodness, what I learn.


I learn that President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a speech in Dover, New Hampshire, in the early 1990’s. If the citizens would give him a second chance, Clinton promised, he would hang in there until the last dog dies. There are several references to the phrase in reports of this speech–maybe it’s taken to be a quaint Arkansas-ism, although I heard it from my mother whose speech was influenced by her Scottish family and her Buffalo, New York, companions. How is it that Clinton and my mama share this unique phrase?

I type ‘etymology’  after ‘the last dog dies’ and hit search.


Again, I hit a treasure-lode of theories. It seems the phrase evolved from another, more specific one: until the last dog is hung. Stuart Edward White used the term in his 1902 novel, according to http://www.phrases.org. White wrote, “It was a point of honor among them to stay until the last dog was hung.”

This theory posits that ‘dog’ referred to an unsavory human–specifically, to a desperado in the Wild West. There is talk of ‘noose parties’ at which dozens of undesirable ‘dogs’ are dispatched at once–this particularly macabre party was over, then, ‘when the last dog was hung.’

That Wild West interpretation could explain how the phrase trickled into an Arkansas vocabulary, but not so much into a western New Yorker’s.  I read on.

Another theory has it that the phrase is based on Seneca Indian lore. The Senecas, it is suggested, celebrated a five-day New Year’s festival, culminating in the strangling of a white dog, which was then hung from a pole. The holiday lasted, the revelers stayed on, until the white dog was hung, I guess, according to this interpretation.

Eeeeuw, indeed. Hung varmints, hung dogs. It is isn’t getting any nicer. But, grimly, I read on.

Mark A. Mandel–also known as ‘Dr. Whom,’ so I am guessing he must be of meticulous grammar intent–writes about a reference to the phrase in Margaret George’s fictional The Autobiography of Henry VIII. (This is not a George book I have read, although I enjoyed her Mary Queen of Scots book very much.) George writes a scene, Mandel  says, in which Henry is vividly bringing a point about loyalty home to his nobles, who have been caught plotting intrigue against their king. The monarch pits a pack of feral dogs against a regal lion. Woe, Henry thinks, to the dogs.

But, ooops. Henry didn’t plan for this: the dogs overpower and kill the lion.. Henry has to do something definitive fast, so he orders each of the dogs to be strung up and hung until dead, and  he orders the nobles to stand there and watch until the very last dog breathes its very last breath.

Lovely stuff. I am feeling a little queasy.


This gets me to thinking, though, about phrases we say that contain the word ‘dead,’–like for instance, when we say a thing or person that looks just like another is a ‘dead ringer.’ There’s a grisly theory, my online research tells me, about this phrase, too.

Many people believe it comes from the custom, in the days before science could prove definitively that a person was really most sincerely dead, of tying a long string around the presumed corpse’s finger. The casket would be buried, but the string would wend up to the surface of the grave and be attached to a bell on a pole. Then, if the corpse should re-awaken, the twitching of the finger would pull the string and ring the bell and grave diggers would converge and hopefully, disinter the poor surprised buried person before the air ran out, six feet below.

A not-so-dead ringer, I guess in reality. But wait–says one site–what does that have to do with the meaning of the phrase? A wakened sleeper could be construed as a once-dead ringer, but how does that relate to two things that appear to be mirror images?

In fact, it does not, my research suggests. Instead, in late 1800’s horse-racing, there was a habit of substituting a horse that looked remarkably like the authentic racer. The subs were called ‘ringers’, and dead here meant precise or exact–a dead ringer, an exact substitute.

That makes more sense, I think. It also is much less the stuff of which nightmares are made. (This all puts me in mind of a horrendous Scottish folk tale my mother used to tell about a beautiful young wife who had what they called the ‘sleeping sickness,’ and was buried alive, accidentally, while her devoted sea captain husband was far, far away…but the hair on my arm is rising and a chill finger creeps up my back. Let’s leave that tale alone…)

(I look up, by the way, the definition of dead as precise, exact, or irrevocable, hoping to find that etymology, but my quick search just tells me English speakers have used ‘dead’ in that way for a long, long time.)


Unbidden an old, old memory comes to me, of a young and crazy time, of being sound asleep when a warm body slipped in next to mine in the wee morning hours and whispered hoarsely, “You might find a few dead soldiers in the kitchen when you get up.”

And on tumbling out of bed for work the next morning, I found not a few, but a battalion of empty beer bottles marching all over the table.

When did an empty bottle become a ‘dead soldier’?

Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) offers me an interesting post from Mike in 2001, saying that William the IV orginally coined the phrase ‘dead marines.’ He was at dinner with the Duke of Clarence, and the table was quite cluttered with irritatingly empty bottles. The King waved to have the surface cleared.

“Take away those marines,” he said, gesturing to the bottles.

A high-ranking marine officer was at dinner. He respectfully asked the King why he chose his branch of the service in talking about the bottles.

“I call them marines,” Mike reports the King said, “because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.”

Clearly, In William the Fourth’s day, beer bottles were refillable.

Mike goes on to report that empty beer bottles have been called ‘dead soldiers’ in the US since WWI. (Dictionary.com supports this, tracing the usage back to 1915.) It must have been another grimly humorous acknowledgement of the loss of life and the need for comfort in a harrowing time. And it was an apt image, perhaps, Mike suggests, in that “the ‘spirits’ had left the bottle…”


I close up the Safari app, and I get up to clear away the dishes. I am humbled.

I am the snooty English teacher who has said to generations of students, from sixth graders to college seniors, “Don’t USE a word if you cannot DEFINE a word.”

I am the pain-in-the-neck mother who has preached for yay, these forty-some years, “If you don’t know what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be saying anything.”

And yet, “I’ll be staying till the last dog dies,” I say blithely and unthinkingly. I, who thought I was so conscious, so mindful of my speech. I who thought I was in control of my turns of phrase.

I rinse the plates and I slide them into their dishwasher slots and I think sadly that I have been dead wrong.


30 thoughts on “Speaking in Terms of the Dead

  1. Very informative! And very grateful I read this in the daylight hours instead of before going off to bed, giggles!! The ‘tongue 👅 in cheek’ ending was perfect!!! Hugs for reminding us to always be mindful of what we say!!

  2. Eeeuuw indeed and lol to boot! Never heard of that phrase but seeing all the other ways we use the word dead really has me contemplating if I can every use any of these again. At least without thinking of this. 😬😉

  3. Elinor Dunnewold

    Until your dying day you may pat yourself on the back for this rollicking informative column. Dead men tell no tales nor shall
    I when I say how much I enjoyed it. Time and tide wait for no man but I await the sequel.

  4. Becky Allison

    Yes, very informative as well as enjoyable. You do have a gift. Nice to know in interactions with your son that he listens to his mama! Listening is such a lost art?

    The older I get the more I am aware in teaching situations or anytime when there are much younger people around that I use many phrases that date me and may be a mystery to others.

    i have a feeling that for while all your readers are going to be cataloging phrases they use without much thought. Maybe we can all send them to you!

  5. Judy C. Kirst

    The saying that started your search is one I have never heard before, but the item about the string tied to the dead in the casket and the bell , is something I have heard about. That was also an interesting little gem about King Henry VIII. My 12th Great Aunt on my Mom’s side was married to King Henry the VIII. I love reading your entries.

  6. I’ve never heard the saying about the dogs. I will always think of empty bottles as dead soldiers though, thanks to my Mom and Dad. They used that one all the time.
    I worked with a girl from Scotland when I was in my 20s. When she would talk about attractive boys she’d say “Aye! He’s dead cute!” (in her thick brogue of course.)

    On another note, I saw a term for retirement I thought you might like: Funemployment! 😉

  7. Pingback: Family Sayings, or Idioms for Idiots | Maid's Day Off

  8. Anand

    Wonderful post. I was an etymology buff for a while–maybe parts of me still are! Loved dream sequence soldiers as bottles–right brain and dream language has its own vocabulary I suppose. I used to frequent Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words website for some time–I hope you have heard about it–a wonderful place to find etymology stories. Now he has changed vocation but archives must be abundant over there. Your reference about bell ringers reminded me of recent film I watched “Autopsy of Jane Doe” which has a mortician and his son examining something interesting and they do attach bells to feet of corpses. Highly recommended film if you like mystery/horror.

    As I started taking interest in English etymology in my college years I started appreciating how much English speakers have respected their language. You won’t find any such stories easily about Hindi/Sanskrit etymologies. Maybe Sanskrit enjoyed such stature in its heydays but now it’s a thing of very remote past. Rise and fall of civilizations is so well reflected in their languages. There are movements related to diaspora in India where people talk about undermining English over regional languages and Hindi. They talk about Japan and China respecting their national languages and doing most of their work using only them and want people to follow in their footsteps but I feel it’s not really as it seems. I feel it goes deeper than that and there are memes which preserve themselves and use languages as their vehicles–so when certain ideas are more powerful they prevail and languages expressing them thrive. Roots of cultural bankruptcy are deeper than those people advocating linguistic chauvinism assume they’re. A related idea is also about coinages–Bill Clinton or any influential person like Shakespeare or Stephen King using some words makes it more likely that they will be adopted by masses. You must have known some celebrities who’re not great intellectuals yet people follow them–this is memes spreading themselves via a strong vehicle. There is a certain force expressing itself via the persona who is powerful and language used by him becomes tool of this force for certain change it exercises in the world and this layer is deeper than mere intellect which might or might not be as developed as the force using this persona. What might be true for persons, groups might also be true for nations, generations and civilizations. Have a nice day ahead, Pam!

    1. Thanks, Anand, for all these thoughts! I will be finding Michael Quinion…that’s not something I have come across.

      I love the historic and dynamic properties of language…how it is never ‘done’ and constantly evolving. Fascinating and revealing of us as people and culture…

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