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What Does It Mean to Be "Dead Even"?

Jim B.
Jim B.

"Dead even" is an English idiom used when two people or things are considered practically inseparable in terms of some defining aspect. This phrase is often used when the two entities that are being described are in competition with each other. The competition that merits the phrase "dead even" could be part of a sporting event, or it could be between two people trying for the same goal. Although the origins of the idiom are uncertain, its meaning comes from the fact that the word "dead", when used in certain idioms, has the figurative sense of exactness.

There are certain occasions when a person speaking may have the opportunity to use a word or phrase that's colorful in nature and has an accepted meaning that's somewhat different than might be expected from the pure definitions of the word or words involved. These short phrases are known as idioms, and they gain their meanings from popular usage in culture over time. At times, it is difficult to discern the origins of idioms because they may have strayed so far from their literal interpretation as to become almost unrecognizable from their original forms. One popular idiom is the phrase "dead even."

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

When using this phrase, someone is usually referring to two or more people. In some aspect in which they otherwise might be separated, these two or more people or things are practically at the same level. For example, someone might say, "After watching both of their performances, I would say that they are dead even in terms of skill level."

In many cases when this phrase is used, there is a sense of competition being implied between two people or things. The competition might be as overt as a sporting event, or it could be a more subtle type of contest ongoing between two people. No matter the case, this idiomatic expression is another way of saying that the two people or things are tied in this contest. As an example, someone might say, "After eight rounds of fighting, the official scorer considered the two boxers to be dead even."

The key to the meaning of this phrase comes from the usage of the word "dead." In some idioms, rather than its literal meaning of "deceased," "dead" takes on a figurative meaning that amplifies whatever word that follows it. For example, a "dead ringer" is someone who looks not just a little like another person, but exactly like that other person. So it is that "dead even" means that two people or things aren't just close in a competition. In fact, there is no way to separate them.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books