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shameless pleading





Dead to rights

You have the right to remain our top story for the next six months….

Dear Word Detective: All the media and late-night jokesters are having a field day with the latest OJ escapade, of course. Several times I’ve heard or seen the phrase “this time they’ve got him dead to rights,” and I think we all understand what it means. The nearest thing to it in your archives is “caught redhanded,” which is not quite the same thing, nor is “they’ve got the goods on him this time!” But when I (figuratively) stand back and look at “got him dead to rights” it seems a rather strange construct — don’t you think? Anyway, did a specific author (like Mark Twain, or A. Conan Doyle, maybe) originate the phrase? Or just when and where did it come from? — Ken in Houston.

deadtorights08.pngOJ who? Oh, right. Gosh, you know, there are times I almost regret my decision to stop watching TV news a couple of years ago. This isn’t one of them. Not that my tele-exile does much good. Despite my best efforts to avoid details of the Simpson kerfuffle, the basic facts of it seem to have seeped into my noggin by osmosis. Perhaps my fillings are picking up Fox News again.

In any case, just going by what the voices in my head tell me, Mr. Simpson does seem to have been caught “dead to rights,” which is to say that there is no reasonable argument that he did not do what he is said to have done and that, in a just universe, he would be, as the legal scholars put it, “toast.”

“Dead to rights” is indeed an odd expression, dating at least to the mid-19th century, when it was first collected in a glossary of underworld slang (“Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon,” by George Matsell, 1859). The first part of the phrase, “dead,” is a slang use of the word to mean “absolutely, without doubt.” This use is more commonly heard in the UK, where it dates back to the 16th century, than in the US. “Dead” meaning “certainly” is based on the earlier use of “dead” to mean, quite logically, “with stillness suggestive of death, absolutely motionless,” a sense we still use when we say someone is “dead asleep.” The “absolutely, without doubt” sense is also found in “dead broke” and “dead certain.”

The “to rights” part of the phrase is a bit more complicated. “To rights” has been used since the 14th century to mean “in a proper manner,” or, later, “in proper condition or order,” a sense we also use in phrases such as “to set to rights,” meaning “to make a situation correct and orderly” (“Employed all the afternoon in my chamber, setting things and papers to rights,” Samuel Pepys, 1662). In the phrase “caught dead to rights,” the connotation is that every formality required by the law has been satisfied, and that the apprehension is what crooks in the UK used to call a “fair cop,” a clean and justifiable arrest. (“Cop,” from the Latin “capere,” to seize, has long been used as slang for “to grab” as well as slang for a police officer.) Of course, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cop and the lips of the jury, so we shall see. Wake me when it’s over.

29 comments to Dead to rights

  • Matt

    Interesting analysis but I disagree. I’ve encountered the use of % ” and “to rights” in the ways you’ve described, but I believe that the case is not that complicated, that the phrase means exactly what it says. It suggests that a person would be ineligible for (dead to) any right of appeal. I think it’s as simple as that, but it’s just a gut feeling and I could be wrong.

  • allan

    Why does “dead to rights” simply mean that one is dead (i.e., without a doubt) to the point that his is being administered last “rights”?

  • Joseph Curwen

    Because you dont administer the last ‘rights’ you administer the last ‘rites’ as in rituals.

  • Jeremy

    Matt’s position on the phrase appears to be reading a bit into the useage. There is no implied denial of appeal, however if an individual would be so bold as to use the phrase it would be more than likely that an appeal would be nothing more than a waste of tax dollars!!

    Ex: An Officer on Partol observes a subject using a rock to break the window of a vehicle, the suspect then reaches in and removes a GPS unit and places it on his person. The Officer subsequently detains the subject on scene finds neither the vehicle nor GPS to be property of the suspect. The suspect is then arrested and charged. In retelling the story to a co-worker, the Officer would like say “I had him dead to rights”. The suspect has the right to appeal but it’s a waste.

    There is no denied right of appeal in that phase.

  • Steve

    I see. Death is when the heart comes to a dead stop.

  • j

    This phrase is obvious, if you think about the words…

    I had him “Dead to rights”

    Think of “Dead to rights” as Brackets.

    On one side is Dead… the other is “Last rights. This person is in a Lose – Lose situation. They are caught!

    It is akin to “A rock and a hard place”

  • G S

    Criminy. These comments are wearing me out. I thought smarter people frequented this site.

  • Terry

    A person in our society has certain rights …right to an attorney, trial by his peers, right to face his accuser, Miranda rights (in the US) etc. But the person who is caught “dead to rights” is not going to be saved by these rights because the evidence is so strong and un deniable against him.

  • Tax Lawyer

    I’ve been active in taxes for lengthier then I care to acknowledge, both on the private side (all my working life-time!!) and from a legal standpoint since passing the bar and following tax law. I’ve rendered a lot of advice and righted a lot of wrongs, and I must say that what you’ve posted makes perfect sense. Please persist in the good work – the more people know the better they’ll be equipped to comprehend with the tax man, and that’s what it’s all about.

  • Steve is funny and G S is so right about the comments.

  • W

    I don’t know how I stumbled upon this forum, but the expression “dead to rights” is also used by people in Law Enforcement. My cousin told me a story about his SWAT experiences of approaching a front door and a man was hiding behind stuff with a gun pointed right at him, and that guy had him “dead to rights”


    I’m with G S.

  • Duh, I can’t stop using this phrase during sunday night football. Maybe now I understand the true meaning, I’ll stop. I’m a lawyer!

  • Interlineal P.E.Ruser _ P.robable E.rror

    I dunno about ‘dead to rights/rites’ but I’m ‘read to diets’! Food for thought?

  • BobH007

    I’ve heard the term used mostly in a law enforcement concept, but wondered if it didn’t date back to the sea-faring days when an attacking ship had the victim ship perpendicular to its path, able to fire a broadside of cannon. That would be at ‘right’ angle and the vessel receiving the fire ‘dead to rights.’ It certainly has a more romantic connotation for me.

  • Kristina

    I think it comes from the Catholic “Last Rights”, “dead to Rights” simply referes to be dead, after last rights…

    Where one’s last rights are no longer availible…After death, you are judged, you cannot repent…

    Odd little quirky Catholic phrase which has been popularized by repetition….

    You won’t hear me use it, I am not Catholic…


  • Ignatian-Mystic

    Personally, I think that the interpretations given by T.W.D., Matt, and some of the others could all be applied to the phrase in different situations. Whatever floats your boat.

  • El Sid

    This could be an example of US usage being fossilised whilst British usage has evolved. These days a Brit would normally say “bang to rights” rather than “dead to rights”, even if the latter is the phrase with the longer history.

    I must admit, that to these British ears, TWD’s line seems most plausible. The average medieval lynch mob didn’t care too much about rights of appeal, but the circumstances of arrest did matter quite a bit, it was important to do it correctly. The ship theory is just fanciful, the religious theories forget that in that context it is spelt “rites”….

  • Matt got it exactly right. The author of this nonsense is wholly wrong. Dead to rights means, the person is no longer eligible for rights. Rights as voting, gun ownership and freedom, disappear upon conviction. That this was cop slang speaks to the cop mentality being their presumptuous ability to revoke rights.

  • harvey

    In many a Louis L’Amour western either a good guy or a bad guy could be caught “dead to rights.” My interpretation is that someone is a dead duck, with only the whim of the shooter determining if he will pull the trigger and kill the shootee! In these stories there are several scenarios: the potential shootee drops his pistol [as in the sheriff had him dead to rights…so I dropped my pistol]; or the shootee realizes his predicament but is too tough to go out peaceably…so he ends up sprawled in the dust with a crimson spot spreading on his shirt/vest/jacket from a bullet in the chest/arm/leg/etc. Or, it could be that someone was caught in the act of theft: he knew it/they knew it/she knew it…and someone could or might call the sheriff; escape from the scene would be possible but escape from the crime would not be possible. Anyhow, this is my contribution to this discussion.

  • Janky McBoogerballs

    Let me clumsily butt in and reiterate how I don’t buy your well thought out explanation and want to cling to the apish idea that the term has something to do with last “rights” being dead to me, or something like that.

  • olivia

    EVERYONE, There is no “last rights” — that phrase does not actually exist. The phrase is “last rites”. Please understand that there is no argument that can be made (well and groundedly) that this originated with the concept of “last rights”…because the only version of that that exists in correct grammar is “last rites”.

    I too thought this particular phrase had to do with someone having no rights / having proven themselves to be guilty and no longer with their right of freedom or whatever. But I’m no expert on this.

  • As for us carpenters, we use the term ” dead nuts ” when we set an elevation, control point or a nark for reference. Can be used for further construction, a bench mark to check other dimensions and elevations from. I do not know the origin of the term but have heard it said in different states, Almost always used in all regions of California, not only by carpenters but other tradesmen as well. I would like any info. on how, where, when and for what reason this term is used

  • Famous fabled word sleuth

    “Dead to rights” originated from the Roman code of the Twelve Tablets. The 12 Tablets are what generally is accepted as the origination of common European law. It dates back to the time of Gaius during the Flavian emperor period and came to be around 450 BC, following a revolt of plebs demanding the entitlement of known and interpretable laws. A 10 man commission with powers of government ( decemviri legibus scribundis) set forth the basis for all of Roman law and the countrymen to abide by and be held accountable to this reproducible written code of civilian conduct, complete with punishments from slavery, indentured servitude, interest of loans repayments, banishment, forfeiture of property, rights, and or possessions and of course the punishment of death, with several choices of which to have been put to death, depending upon the severity of the crime committed AND found guilty. Interesting, this also is the era for which the term, “An eye for a eye”, was coined.
    “Dead to rights” is a reference to the 4th Table: a father had the right to life and death over his children ( patria potestas ). Interpreted by European law, Roman languages intertwined between Latin and Greek during this period of the development of civilian law. Hence the wording for the 4th table was interchangeably made, reversing the original text to easy translate, the term was coined “Dead To Rights”, inferring the father had rights to the death or life of their children. The term was essentially lost following the later transition of the former Roman Empire as change proceeded with its union as a people under the leadership of Constantinople and the reforming of the empire into early the Christian Roman Empire. The Tables were amended, the term lost favor as the law was amended.
    The resurrection of the term “Dead to rights”, came to be, ironically, when used by 18th century bounty hunters, who were provided a ransom for a reward, for a criminal “dead or alive”. Once the capture had an escaping prisoner or criminal, cornered and the possibility for escape was impossible, the captor has the option of requesting a complete surrender of rights or the captor was permitted to exercise his “dead to rights” option for attainment of the captured person (s), in exchange for the bounty.
    And now, you know the rest of the story… Thank Paul Harvey for that famous quote.

  • Waldog

    Necrophilia is legal! That gives the expression “You’ve got them dead to rights.” a whole new meaning.

  • Joe

    How about “dead ringer”?

    “dead” OK, same meaning as your explanation.

    But “ringer”? That sounds as slang as slang can be, but what’s behind it.

    Slang is people’s poetry.

    With as much depth as the literal variety and oodles more amusement.

  • Curt Albright

    Wonderful explanation ! I love your very witty manner as well.

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