A nail in the coffin
There are several variants of this phrase in use, another, an additional and the final being particularly common. They all mean pretty much the same thing, something that contributes to or hastens the demise of the person or thing being referred to. Coffins were made of wood and the sides and lid were fixed into place by driving nails in. There was a sense of finality to the proceedings as the physical remains of the occupant were not intended to get out, leaving the odd grave robber or premature burial to one side.
John Wolcot, an English satirist, who used the splendid nom de plume of Peter Pindar when he published his Expostulatory Odes to a Great Duke in 1789, is credited with the first usage of the image of a nail being added to a coffin. In his Ode XV he wrote, “care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt;/ and ev’ry grin, so merry, draws one out”. It is a striking image and clearly struck home in the popular imagination, particularly in, but not exclusively, the United States.
Thomas Paine, he of the Rights of Man fame and a failed bridge builder to boot, was passionately against the maintenance of strong trading relationships with Britain and railed against the Federalists who espoused this policy. In an open letter to the American public, his eighth such, he wrote of John Hulbert, according to the Aurora General Advertiser of June 7, 1805, “in his late unprincipled speech…he has driven another nail in the coffin of the federal faction”. The Americans watched the early triumphs of Napoleon with interest from a distance, the Wilmington Gazette moved to note, in its edition of January 27, 1807, “every battle which is fought and won by the French is an additional nail in the coffin of the liberties of the world”.
It would be wrong to get the impression that Wolcot’s Pindaric image was adopted exclusively by the Americans. Contemporaneously it was in use in England, as this passage attacking William Cobbett, the political reformer and founder of Cobbett’s Political Register, in The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of September 3, 1812 shows; “no wonder that Mr Cobbett is angry with Mr Elton, who, by exposing the obliquity of his personal feelings and the dereliction of his public duty, has clenched the nail in the coffin of the Political Register”. Accusations that politicians and political commentators were less than mindful of the truth are nothing new. The newspaper’s prediction of the Political Register’s demise was a tad premature. It lasted another 24 years, only folding in 1836, a year after Cobbett’s death.
Surprisingly but somewhat amusingly, Isaac Coffin, a former officer of the Royal Navy and MP for Ilchester, was associated with the phrase by The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of April 1, 1822 – I hope the date is not significant – in a report of a parliamentary debate on the Salt Tax; “Sir I. Coffin was anxious to drive a spike nail into the coffin of the oppressive tax”..
The temperance movement or, at least, those who wished to moderate the consumption of strong liquors were keen to adopt the image, it nicely playing on the idea that you were hastening your demise by drinking the stuff. Some hardened topers in the belief that they were diluting the effects took a glass of porter to accompany their dram, transforming the spirit into what we now call a chaser. According to the journalist, Pierce Egan, in his Life in London, published in 1821, this was only a false precaution; “too many individuals, hard drinkers, flatter themselves that, from such sort of care, they are keeping the nails out of their coffins, till the trembling hand, the diseased appetite, and the debilitated constitution, lamentably point out the fatal error, too late to be corrected”.
Over in the States, dram drinking was also associated with putting another nail in the coffin, as this helpful definition from the Lansingburgh Gazette from January 24, 1809 reveals; “it is usually said of dram-drinker, that every dram they take, is another nail driven into their coffins”.
Little notice of such sage advice do we take!