Dead man walking?

2012-03-02 11:16



Dead man walking?

Reader question:

Please explain “dead man walking”, as in this sentence: Despite reports suggesting that the Sony Walkman brand was a dead man walking, the brand continues to crop up - most recently in the electronics giant’s homeland of Japan...

My comments:

To say Sony’s Walkman is a “dead man walking” is to suggest that it is doomed.

Which turns out not to be the case (for now at least, if I read it correctly), but that doesn’t matter to us, does it?

I mean, let Sony worry about that. We’d all be happy, I’m sure, to deal with the phrase alone.

Can you visualize a dead man walking?

A terrible sight you see, to be sure, but fortunately that’s just an imagination. Dead men won’t walk, which is why an idiom is not to be read literally, but expressively. In other words, it’s just an expression. The idea is, even though the man is seen walking, he’s really no different than dead.

In American prisons, wardens used to call a prisoners with a death sentence “dead man”, meaning his days are numbered as he is about to be executed soon. Indeed, as these men are led out of their prison cells, wardens call out loud: “Dead man walking here!” Just a reminder to everybody around that another condemned man is on his way to the death bed.

There’s a book, as well as a movie, of the same title. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote a poem with this very title, in which he addresses himself as The Dead Man Walking, saying, in part:

A Troubadour-youth I rambled

With Life for lyre,

The beats of being raging

In me like fire.

But when I practised eyeing

The goal of men,

It iced me, and I perished

A little then.

When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,

Through the Last Door,

And left me standing bleakly,

I died yet more;

And when my Love's heart kindled

In hate of me,

Wherefore I knew not, died I

One more degree.

And if when I died fully

I cannot say,

And changed into the corpse-thing

I am to-day,

Yet is it that, though whiling

The time somehow

In walking, talking, smiling,

I live not now.

Like many of his novels, with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure springing first and foremost to mind, this poem sounds tragic and irresistibly beautiful.

Anyways, “dead man walking” is a popular idiom, very popular, describing situations where a man, or a project for that matter, is doomed to fail or lose something, either life itself or something as trivial as, say, a job.

Here are a few recent media examples:

1. A former plastic surgery nurse has revealed details of Michael Jackson’s drug addictions, reports The Sun.

Kathryn Buschelle, who was also a long-term partner of one of Michael’s surgeons, has alleged that Jackson became addicted to the intravenous anesthetic propofol (Diprivan), which he first took to relieve the pain of continuous skin lightening treatments: “Michael’s obsession with his appearance led to more and more skin treatments and his subsequent addiction to Diprivan led to even more,” says Buschelle. “It was an insane cycle. “He was literally burning his skin off and then being knocked out like a zombie. It reads like a horror movie script. Towards the end of the ’90s he was a dead man walking, that’s how zoned out he was.”

She continues: “The drug began to be the sole purpose he would come to the clinic. He would stay a few days, sometimes spending as long as 72 hours under. Michael effectively mummified himself. He’d just lie like a living corpse.”

- Jackson Nurse: “He Was a Dead Man Walking”,, July 14, 2009.

2. Shaquille O’Neal finally has shed some light on Stan Van Gundy's departure in 2005 as head coach of the Miami Heat, although, be warned, he’s using his own flashlight.

“Stan got fired because Pat (Riley) wanted to take over, not because I wanted him out,” Shaq said in his latest book, “Shaq Uncut: My Story” with Jackie MacMullan...

Everybody already figured what Shaq has written is no seismic surprise, anyway.

But it’s hard to swallow whole the notion that he had no say behind the scenes in Miami, given his track record starting in Orlando.

Shaq even went so far as to say, “We all knew Stan was a dead man walking. I kind of felt sorry for the guy. He didn’t deserve to get fired.”

- Shaq: Pat Riley pushed out Stan Van, not me,, November 12, 2011.

3. Investors are sharpening their knives for more FTSE chairmen, encouraged by the successful revolt against Harvey McGrath at Prudential.

A range of institutional investors and shareholder bodies told the Mail that 2012 would be the year in which directors began to feel their wrath in earnest.

Under-fire BSkyB chairman James Murdoch and BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg – criticised for keeping a low profile during the Gulf of Mexico crisis – are among the favourites for the chop.

A spokesman for one major investor with £20billion of assets under management said that while Svanberg was likely to survive in the short term, Murdoch was a dead man walking.

“In the case of BP, the window of opportunity has gone and there isn’t the critical mass to get him off the board,” she said. “Murdoch is a different kettle of fish. I wouldn’t fall off my chair if he had to resign in the next few weeks.”

- FTSE bosses brace for revolting 2012 as investors are encouraged by successful rebellions,, December 24, 2011.

4. Pressure is building in Congress. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who both serve on the Armed Services Committee, have argued for arming the Syrian rebels. Obama’s former State Department policy planning head Anne-Marie Slaughter was among the first to call for intervention. In late January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it’s only “a question of time” before President Bashar al Assad falls. In December, the State Department pointman said Syria’s leader was a “dead man walking.” More recently, White House press secretary said on Tuesday that “additional measures” such as rebel-arming may need to be taken if the international community keeps dithering.

- Why Obama won’t intervene in Syria,, February 22, 2012.

5. At 440 pounds, Joe Joyce couldn’t even bathe properly. He would get winded trying to get through the shower.

“I was a dead man walking,” the 42-year-old said, shaking his head.

That was two years ago, before Joyce decided to change nearly everything about his lifestyle.

“It was a decision to live,” he said matter-of-factly.

Without the help of a diet program, Joyce embarked on a weight-loss journey that would allow him to shed nearly 200 pounds between January 2010 and today.

- Losing 200 pounds without help, Richmond Times Dispatch, January 08, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)

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