Well, to be fair, the OED says the term “doornail,” which refers to large-headed nails used for strengthening or ornamentation on doors, is now used almost exclusively in alliterative phrases such as “dumb as a doornail,” “deaf as a doornail,” and “dead as a doornail.” Since nails of any kind can neither speak nor hear, the first two are not bad similes, taken all in all. “Deaf” can be mis-heard as “dead,” and one can’t describe nails as living anyway, so “dead as a doornail” is a logical addition to this group, and is probably the one most of us are familiar with.
Arguably, doorknobs are also incapable of speech, hearing, or life in any real sense, so “dead as a doorknob” is no more bizarre a comparison than its legitimate cousins, and in a world where doornails are rare and doorknobs common this error is bound to be common as well. Of course he was aiming for the satisfying feeling of finality carried by the standard phrase, and of course I knew what he meant. That didn’t stop me from laughing.
Cultural changes do make figures of speech mystifying, and sometimes downright inaccessible (as anyone knows who has looked to the footnotes for illumination of some of Shakespeare’s phrases). Perhaps those of us who cling to figures of speech that are now merely expressions rather than vivid images are the foolish ones, sacrificing clarity for correctness. But students who hear such expressions and then try to understand them give us some variations that are neither correct nor clear.
“He felt as clumsy as a bull in China,” for instance.
I don’t remember going into any china shops in my time, but I’m sure they existed. My mother bought china for friends’ anniversaries or weddings at the jewelers’, or from the china department in the best department store in our area, and those were also places where a little child could feel pretty clumsy, so I can imagine how that bull would feel. Going to the bridal registry, choosing a gift from a book of pictures, and then having the store wrap and maybe even ship the gift doesn’t require the same physical caution; ordering china online is even less risky. And probably it’s a rare town nowadays that houses an actual china shop. On the other hand, I really can’t imagine why a bull would feel any clumsier in China than anywhere else….
Sometimes change seems to move in the opposite direction. Now that so many Americans live in the suburbs rather than in towns and cities, thinking of a neighbor as living behind the very next door on the street may seem a bit of a stretch (in the town of my youth we did have next-door neighbors, and friends living “three doors down”); but certainly thinking of a neighbor as living in the very next STORE would have to date back to before suburbs at all—except for people who live downtown in a city or teenagers who virtually live in the mall. Still, I have never had a student write “my next-door neighbor,” but I have had several students mention their “next store neighbor.”
This would even seem to violate the linguistic tendency to collapse pronunciation toward the easier-to-say: wouldn’t “next-door” be more likely to remain as is, or to collapse to “neck store” perhaps, than to move to the clustered warring consonants of “neXTSTore”?
Well, the process is a mystery to me. But one element in it must be a failure to visualize.
That would also account for a haziness of time and place that has crept in as the word “midst” becomes less common (or less carefully pronounced): “An old man arrives in their mist.” “That happened in the mist of slavery.”
Non-pictorial but also connected to the fading of a term is a question that may sum up the battle to retain the pictorial aspect of speech: “Will it be all for not?”