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English Language
Word and Phrase Origins

What is the origin of the phrase dead to rights?

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January 16, 2009 1:19PM

Courtesy of the Word Detective: "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. Share this article!