Dead to Rights

Written by on August 8, 2017 in blog with 0 Comments

Dead to Rights

I don’t know how many of you have even heard of this expression. But where I grew up, dead to rights was common usage—everyone knew what it meant. But it wasn’t until I used the saying in one of my books that my editor flagged it, as she didn’t know what the saying was.

I was shocked. How could anyone not know what that means?

After that, I conducted an informal poll, and I was shocked at the results. If people were living in, or raised in, the Northeast, they seemed to be familiar with the saying. It was less familiar to those whose linguistic experience originated in the South or Midwest, and to those of western origin, it was almost unheard of.

With a bit more research, I found out that the saying has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, originating in the UK. I’ve included n-gram usage for both American and British English.

   dead to rights expression

dead to rights saying

So What Does It Mean?

For those of you who haven’t stumbled across this gem, it means something similar to “being caught red-handed,” having no question of guilt. “The police caught them dead to rights; they had the stolen goods in the car.”

With further digging, I found a reasonable explanation in the book Slang and Its Analogues, by W.S. Farmer & J.L. Henley.

They claim that “dead to rights” means “certain; without doubt,” and insist it is an amplification of a previously used term “to rights,” which means “completely to one’s satisfaction.” Dead is simply to emphasize the phrase much in the way it does current expressions such as “dead broke,” “dead heat,” and “dead ringer.”

If you walk into your house and see your teenage son drinking a beer, you might say you have him dead to rights, in other words, there is no question of his guilt; you saw him. If you simply had smelled alcohol on his breath, there may be an explanation but short of hallucinations, an eyewitness account (your own) is difficult to refute.

Dead to rights is not a common saying, and you’re more likely to hear it during informal chats or read it in a book associated with police work. On the other hand, it’s not a rare saying either, so knowing what it means may help.

In any case, I’m glad I looked this up. I not only got more insight into dead to rights, but also on dead broke, dead heat, and dead ringer.

If you want more grammar fun, try this one.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes nonfiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing.

When Giacomo isn’t writing, he’s helping his wife take care of the animals on their sanctuary. At last count they had forty animals—seven dogs, one horse, six cats, and twenty-five pigs.

Oh, and one crazy—and very large—wild boar, who takes walks with Giacomo every day and happens to also be his best buddy.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with forty-five loving “friends.”

About the Author

About the Author: Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends. .

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