D–the Doorway to Death

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As I was looking for an interesting word in the D section of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, I was struck by the number of dead and death words. It seems to me a depressing letter. I first attributed the negative quality of D to the prefix de-

This prefix carries a negative connotation in many of its variations. It can mean

  • To do the opposite of something (deactivate)
  • To remove something (dethrone or detach)
  • To reduce (devalue)
  • To get off something (detrain)
  • To go down (depress, decline)
  • To undo (defrost)

In chemistry, de- refers to removing one or more atoms from a molecule (deoxy).

Unusual Dead and Death Words

Check out this short list of the 75+ words that start with dead:

  • Dead dipping—giving brass a dull color by dipping it in acid.
  • Dead letter—it is an unclaimed letter, but dead letter also refers to a law that is no longer enforced but still on the books.
  • Deadman’s hand, dead men’s fingers, and dead men’s lines are types of plants.

Deaf, deal, dean, and dear (and their variations) lie between dead and death.

The dictionary lists a mere forty words beginning with death. These include words such as

  • Deathpoint—the temperature (hot or cold) at which life can no longer exist.
  • Death cup—a poisonous mushroom.
  • Death tick—a small beetle that makes a ticking sound. More commonly called a woodworm.

But Dead Doesn’t Have a Prefix

The de- in dead is not a prefix. Instead, dead is derived from the Middle English ded, and from the Proto-Germanic daudaz. Daudaz is the source of the Danish død, the Swedish död, the Dutch dood, and the German tod.

So there is no de- prefix in dead. But what about deceased? The opposite of ceasing cannot be deceased. Instead, deceased is derived from the French deces, derived from the Latin decessus, which means departure or death.

Languages are less likely to “borrow” words for significant life events, but dead and death words are an exception.

The Letter D can be Traced to the Symbol for Door

D comes from door

The shape of the letter is often traced to the Proto-Semitic symbol for dalet or daleth, meaning door. Initially, the letter lay on its back, but it eventually morphed and stood up, so to speak.

A Death Tick

The sound of a death tick, also known as a woodworm, or furniture beetle.

For other obscure words check out the Language Lovers Infographic page.

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