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From NPR

Last year, Consumer Reports did a survey of thousands of U.S. flyers. Spirit finished dead last. In fact, Consumer Reports said Spirit's rating was among the lowest of any company they've ever rated.

I know that finish last means wind up as the last position in a race, competition etc. But What's the meaning of dead in the middle of the two words? After looking up the dictionary, I found that dead could be mean completely. So does the sentence implicate that Spirit not only finished last, but also was far behind other companies?

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It's not at all a standard usage in this exact context - the guy's just talking informally, so he comes out with a "close, but not close enough" variant of dead = very, exactly, completely, absolutely. The last of those "synonyms" wouldn't sound too bad in this context, but as a rule, words like "first" and "last" aren't really "gradeable", so any adjectival modification is likely to sound clunky. I'd strongly advise you not to imitate the usage. –  FumbleFingers Feb 22 at 16:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

By itself, the expression might mean "in last place, far behind the competition," or it could simply mean, "in last place, behind all other competitors."

In this context, the word dead is used for emphasis, as if declare, "Not just near the bottom, but at the bottom."

You might ask, "Doesn't the word last imply that on its own already?" Yes, it does! However, the expression dead last is still used rather often – even if it is sometimes a tad redundant.

(Excellent question, by the way.)

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If a competitor scores or finishes "dead last", that generally implies that the competitor's performance was much worse than anyone else's. For example, if competitors finish with times of 3:13.2, 3:13.9, 3:14.2, and 5:39.7, the difference between first and third would be only a second, but the difference between third and fourth would be more than a minute and a half.

There isn't an exact formula to determine when the phrase "dead last" is appropriate; it tends to suggest that the difference between the competitor's performance and the next better competitor is large in both absolute and relative terms. It's possible for multiple competitors to finish "dead last" if the differences among their performances are small compared to the difference between the best of their performances and the performance of the next better competitor (e.g. in a 6-contestant race, if competitors finish with times of 1:00, 1:01, 1:02, 1:03, 5:37, and 7:23, the last two contestants could be described as finishing "dead last", since the field may be divided into "people who finished in under 1:05" and "people who took more than five times that long". The latter two contestants might officially be credited as "finishing", but their performance would be qualitatively worse than anyone else's. Had the sixth competitor's time been bad enough, it would make sense to describe that competitor alone as being "dead last", but there's no clear line where the distinction should be made.

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I don't disagree with this, but it's worth mentioning that "dead last" can also be used when the delta between the last-place finisher and the rest of the field isn't all that great. This website, for example, mentions how a team "finished in dead last" in the standings, yet the two teams above them in the standings only managed one more win for the season. Still, I agree that the phrase often carries an implication that the delta is more striking than that. –  J.R. Feb 21 at 20:32
    
@J.R.: Fair point. Perhaps it would be fair to say that dead last includes an element of "unusually or unexpectedly bad". In any competition, someone will be in last place, but typically the last-place competitor's performance would be qualitatively similar to the others; for it to be qualitatively different would be unusual. Likewise if someone usually finishes near the front of the pack, for them to be in last place by any margin by any margin would be unusual [for them to be in second-to-last place might not be much less unusual, but "dead last" implies being in last place or tied for it]. –  supercat Feb 21 at 20:39

I think it goes something like dead sure means very sure. Up to a great extent. Dead in that sense may mean extremely.

dead (adv) - very; extremely

The company's worst performance it was as it listed the least...in fact terribly bad.

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You don't sound very sure about this. Perhaps it would be better to post this as a comment? –  starsplusplus Feb 21 at 11:06
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@starsplusplus I'm dead sure about it! :) –  Maulik V Feb 21 at 11:07
    
Not necessarily "terribly" bad, although it could mean that. The key word in this definition is "often", which is not quite the same as "always." –  J.R. Feb 21 at 12:48
    
I gave the reference where dead is used as in dead sure meaning extreme degree Anyway, @J.R. You may delete/downvote then. You are the moderator and judge my answers better. –  Maulik V Feb 21 at 12:56
    
There is no need to delete this answer; there's nothing inherently wrong with it. My comment was meant to augment your answer, not correct it. Your answer clearly says "dead in that sense may mean extremely" (emphasis added). Your assertion that the company's performance was "terribly bad" is accurate, too; as the original says, "Spirit's rating was among the lowest of any company they've ever rated." –  J.R. Feb 21 at 14:28

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