adverbial dead

For my birthday in October, Better Half promised me a weekend away before the birth of Grover. But since I (a) spent the first half of my third trimester in (the) hospital and (b) was cheated out of the second half entirely, that didn't happen. So this week he took Grover and me for a plush few days in the New Forest. And there, in the village of Hythe, I photographed this sign:

This was convenient, as I'd been meaning to take a photo of such a sign in Brighton, but since I'm not a tourist in Brighton, I rarely have my camera with me. So, it was great to see one while I had my camera at the ready on our mini holiday/vacation.

Needless to say (since I've posted a photo of it), this is not a sign you'd see in America. There, such a sign would probably have an unmodified slow or go slow.

In this context, dead is an adverb modifying slow. It makes me chuckle involuntarily for two reasons: (a) dead slow is not as idiomatic in AmE as in BrE and therefore the literal meaning occurs to me when I read it, and (b) in BrE adverbial dead is frequently a colloquialism, and therefore it seems a bit funny to see on a sign.

Since I get the literal meaning of dead slow when I read it, it strikes me as an oxymoron. If something's dead, it seems to me, it wouldn't move at all, so it couldn't be slow. But that "logic" is misplaced, since AmE, like BrE, uses dead as an adverb with other adjectives that indicate a glimmer (or more) of life--for example dead certain and dead tired. So, we could use dead with slow, but we tend not to.

If one hears a lot of colloquial BrE, one knows that dead can go with just about any adjective in certain informal registers. For example:
Dom looks dead sexy in eyeliner and black nail varnish (=AmE nail polish) [comment on]

... I also watched "Sky High", which was dead good. [...] It's odd really, some of it is DEAD POSH, like the lobby and the millions of people tidying plates away at breakfast, and some of it ISN'T, like the mucky marks on the walls and the water dripping on your head in reception. [...] We then had a LOVELY bit of tapas (ooh, it was DEAD nice, roast potatoes and hot garlicy [sic] tomato sauce, ACE!) ... [a (orig. AmE) mother-lode of deadness in a description of a Singapore holiday from MJ Hibbett--I haven't bothered to mark all the other Briticisms in that]
The OED, however, classes dead slow as a non-colloquial usage (going with dead calm and dead tired) rather than this all-purpose colloquial intensifier. At any rate, it all sounds dead British.


  1. I'm trying to think of a corresponding American term, and all I can come up with is maybe "real" or "really". "Dead" is funny. I think of "right" being another BrE term that might be used here. Though this would be strange on a sign. I guess it could mean that they are dead serious about going slowly. Somehow dead tired or dead certain and also dead serious has a more definite sense to it, as death is certain and serious and one could feel as tired as death with a little exaggeration . Dead slow, though, or dead posh, uh, dead sexy? Oh dear.

  2. There's drop-dead sexy here. I'm not sure in what other context drop-dead is used in.

  3. Compare the (I think largely African-American) use of "mad," as in "mad cool."

    And how can we mix in "dead-on," as aim, or "dead to rights"?

  4. "Mad" as an all-purpose intensifier was originally Afr-AmE, but my sense as an AmE speaker in America is that not long after it crossed over into general use (say ten, fifteen years ago) it became outdated and is used in a strictly jocular sense today.

  5. Up here in Scotland, we have intensified the intensifier. It came originally from a Scottish sitcom (can't remember which one, but I believe it was Elaine C Smith who played the character involved), and spread widely from there. She used to describe things as "pure dead brilliant." And "pure dead" caught on, although its usage has faded now.

  6. As usual I did my research after posting my comment. I was right that it was Elaine C Smith, but it seems she did not originate the phrase, as seen on Wikipedia here:

    (which also localises it specifically to Glasgow)

  7. I'd suggest the New England use of "wicked" is equivalent, as well as being entirely unused outside the region. New Yorkers sometimes use "way" in rather the same sense.

    But I wouldn't expct to see either on a sign.

  8. I've definitely noticed use of "well" to modify also since moving from US to UK...particularly from my 8 year old nephew, and when unfortunately watching the Catherine Tate show "Am I bovvered" sketches.

    That was WELL good!

  9. I'm not sure if it was ever in a specifically American context, but I've heard "dead slow" used in nautical directions in the movies (not being a sailor myself). It did sound odd to my American ears, but then so do many nautical turns of phrase. Seeing as many, if not all, of these probably had BrE roots, this shouldn't be all that surprising, I guess, but the off shoot of it is that what would otherwise be a foreign sounding expression sounds less so (on, rather than across the pond?).

  10. I think you're dead right that you wouldn't find dead slow on a US sign. Speaking of dead right, I'm reminded of a public service announcement in the US about defensive driving, I think, some years back, and the tagline was: "You could be right...dead right," meaning literally dead.

  11. jhm is on to something. "Dead Slow" does mean something in America: it means boats. I wish I had proof, but I'm pretty sure you will see signs saying "dead slow: 3 knots" in places like marinas, narrow channels, and passing under bridges.

    When I was a reckless youth we used to pull stunts like waterskiing all the way around Mercer Island, near Seattle, which involved skiing under two bridges at the legal 3 knots -- harder than it sounds.

  12. AmE uses "dead" similarly in "dead broke", but I can't think of another general usage that would be colloquial.

    For the nautical use of "dead slow", I think that engine annunciators* commonly have that term for the slowest speed at which you can keep the engine running.

    * Also known as "engine telegraphs"; the device often seen in movies being used to communicate desired engine speeds from the bridge to the engine room.

  13. "Dead" seems a standard adverb meaning "exactly" (rather than "extremely") for many directions/positions: ahead, straight, opposite, north, etc. Cf. "dead centre".

    Some other common collocations of adverbial "dead": right, wrong, easy, drunk. And it seems more common to be "dead set" (on one's goal) than merely to be "set" on it. There is some variation with "deadly" e.g. for silent, serious, urgent.

    Of the other adverbs mentioned, only "real" (not "really") strikes me as American (and even Cowboy). Though in GB/IRL I've only heard "mad" in contexts like "mad busy" where it is retains some semantic content richer than a mere intensifier (similarly "crazy busy").

  14. Ha ha ha, thanks for a good laugh, I kind of forgot about that. Dead posh is a brilliant thing and it really sounds great in a brummie accent!

  15. "Really" is like "very" in AmE. "Real" might be a shortened form of "really". "Way", too, sounds familiar and puts me in mind of "so". This sounds like valley talk to me. "Oh, like that is so, way cool, gag me with a spoon." I must not be very hip because I think I missed the whole "mad" craze.

    Good catch about dead slow being a nautical phrase. I wonder how it came about and whether the BrE use of dead as an intensifier grew from its use there.

  16. Doug, how about "dead last"? Though this and "dead broke" might have the "absolutely" sense rather than the "extremely" sense. Or those senses aren't so far apart, really. (Certainty is intense?)

  17. I have seen a sign saying
    "Dead Slow
    in the UK, and it took me a while to realise that dead slow was not a description of the children, more an instruction for the motorists.

  18. Funny, Grinnyguy, we've seen signs "slow children" in the US and joked about the ambiguity too. Does "slow" in BrE mean developmentally delayed, as well?

  19. You might find this link interesting and the photo rather funny!:

    Perhaps the expression 'dead slow' does come from the speed at which a hearse travels...very slowly.

    I have heard that 'dead reckoning' a nautical term has been derived from a misspelling of 'ded. reckoning' an abbreviation of 'deduced reckoning'. Perhaps this is partly where the nautical use of 'dead' has originated? I dunno.

  20. According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words at, "...the one thing we can be sure of is that dead reckoning has no link with deduced reckoning or the abbreviated ded. reckoning."
    I suppose he's dead sure of that.

  21. Gotta go with the OED on that one, it doesn't sound colloquial at all in that context to me

  22. I've heard 'dead stop' here in the US, though not from the under-35 crowd. And occasionally 'dead wrong'. My DH thinks that some of my colloquial usages, which seem to puzzle the natives here in LA are due to my Midwest US upbringing. Or perhaps it's due to being over 50??

  23. Dead stop is an adjectival use of dead. But it probably comes from the idiom to stop dead, in which one could argue that the dead is an adverb. To me it doesn't seem like one, though. I think that like in the phrase to drop dead it's an adjective, indicating the result of the verbal process, rather than an adverb describing its manner. (AHD disagrees, and says that it's an adverb in stop dead, and that dead means 'suddenly' there. That's not how I was understanding it--so perhaps I've been misunderstanding that phrase all my life!)

  24. Maybe I have a different background but I am sufficiently familiar with "dead" as a modifier of "slow" to have used it myself. It may be from my U.S. Navy service or it may be that I just think that's where I used it but the term "dead slow" means to me moving as slowly as necessary to avoid negatively affecting a situation. A ship would move dead slow through a minefield. A man who had trod near a poinsonous snake would back away dead slow. That is the connotation I would intend.

  25. As others mentioned "dead slow" is a nautical term. I think Britain with its extensive canal network, river navigation, and major ports just moved that term outside its nautical context. America had some canals and a couple ports but few people ever come into contact with either and many places in America have no nautical background.

    Also, I suspect "stop dead" comes from "dead stop" which is related to "dead slow" rather than the other way around.

  26. Hi Lynn
    I'm wondering if Dead as exact is related to "dead reckoning" in navigation.

  27. I remember vividly an example of this from my youth. My brother and his friend had rescued a rabbit from somewhere out on the farm and were enthusiastically telling us how well it was doing: 'It's dead alive, you know.'

  28. "Dead slow" in the road-sign sense is indeed related to the nautical term, and means as slowly as it it physically possible to move.

    If the sign said "Ramp: Slow", then you might drive at 10 or even 20 miles an hour. But "Ramp: Dead Slow" is warning you to slow right down to a crawl.

    "Dead tired" is being so tired you're (nearly) dead. Again, not really related to the modern slang meaning of "dead" as "very".

    A phrase that seems to have dropped out of use during the 20th century is "a dead secret", meaning an absolute secret not to be revealed under any circumstances. One of Wilkie Collins' novels is called The Dead Secret, a double meaning, as the story centres round the closely guarded secret of someone who is now dead.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)