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The phrase dead meat refers to a condition of being dead, about to die, in great danger, or otherwise doomed. This phrase is often used in a threatening way. For example, someone who is threatening someone may say, “you are dead meat,” to communicate that threat. Most often, it is not meant literally.
In terms of its origin, the phrase has been traced back to 1849, where it was originally used in dialect in various publications. The exact origin of the phrase is unknown, but many word historians contend that the phrase developed from a more simple conceptual phrase correlating threats to death. For example, in the French, the phrase “dead man” is often used.
Modern English idioms also exist as alternatives to the phrase “dead meat,” which is very colloquial. Another idiomatic way to refer to the same idea is to use the phrase “dead man walking.” Alternately, someone might also just use the word “dead” as in “you’re dead.”
This idiomatic phrase is almost always used along with a pronoun. When someone threatens another person, they would say “you are dead meat.” If someone wants to communicate that they themselves are in danger, they would say “I’m dead meat.” It’s interesting that although this phrase is technically in the present tense, its use actually refers hypothetically to the future. For example, a sibling may tell another: “when Dad gets home, you’re dead meat.” Here, the present tense verb “are” is used to express a future event.
Although this phrase is most commonly associated with threats to people, in business, it may be used to talk about projects or other items as well. For example, if someone says “when the boss sees how much that project costs, it’ll be dead meat,” they are expressing the likelihood that the boss will “kill” the project or end it prematurely. Here, some other idioms also apply. Someone might tell someone to “stick a fork in something,” which rests on yet another idiom, the word “done,” which refers to the idea of food being fully cooked.
Another way to use the idiom is in the larger context of a justice system. Here, the threat is not from another person, but from a general system of law enforcement for a society. A parole officer might say to a person on probation: “if you get caught breaking the law, you’re dead meat,” in reference to the harsh or merciless punishment that would await the subject if he or she committed a second offense.