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What Is a "Dead Man Walking"?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Dead man walking" is a phrase used to convey that a person is in some sort of trouble and has no hope of escaping punishment. This phrase is an idiom, which is a word or phrase that is used expressively rather than literally. When a person uses this phrase, he does not mean the person in question is truly deceased. Instead, he typically is trying to convey that a person is going to lose his job, suffer some sort of punishment from law enforcement, have to deal with an angry spouse or parent, or is in some other dire situation.

There are many ways a person may choose to indicate that another person, or even himself, is facing some sort of serious trouble. An individual could simply choose to say that a party is in trouble, will be punished, or should expect some form of punishment. In many cases, however, people choose to use expressions that are referred to as idioms to make their points. An idiom is a commonly used but not literal expression.

It may be easiest to consider examples when trying to understand what the phrase "dead man walking" means. For example, a person might make a major mistake at work and then fail to show up the next day to perform his regular job duties. If this person's boss is very upset over this behavior or has even lost money as a result of it, his coworkers may describe him as a dead man walking. In such a case, this phrase indicates that his coworkers believe he may be fired very soon.

Another example could involve a personal relationship. For instance, if a teen has taken the car when he wasn't supposed to and received a speeding ticket, he may face punishment from his parents.

Sometimes, the phrase is used in cases involving law enforcement. For example, if an individual is in trouble with the law and is unlikely to escape without a long prison sentence, a person may describe him using the "dead man walking" idiom. Likewise, a person who faces the death penalty may be described in this way.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By Cageybird — On Jun 06, 2014

I remember the movie Dead Man Walking, but I had heard the expression long before it came out. Sometimes we'd use it to describe one of our male friends who had to go home and apologize to his wife for staying out late or lying to her about something important. One of us would yell out "Dead man walking!" as he was leaving the office.

By Phaedrus — On Jun 05, 2014

The first time I ever heard the idiom "dead man walking" was during the movies by that same name. The deputy walking ahead of a Death Row inmate said it a few times while they were leading him to the electric chair. It seems like after that movie came out, I heard it a lot more often.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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