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I came across the phrase Drop Dead Gorgeous which means very gorgeous or good-looking.

Why does the above phrase have this meaning? How do the given words relate to the meaning?

41

Drop dead works as an intensifier in this phrase. The reference to death isn't literal; it's a hyperbolic expression meant to emphasize how incredibly stunning the speaker finds the person being described.

It's thematically akin to phrases like "I am so [adjective] I could die" (common examples: "hungry," "happy") or "I'm bored to death."

  • 41
    I would say heart-stoppingly and perhaps breathtakingly are more analogous. – choster Feb 7 at 5:15
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    @choster I agree that they would be appropriate synonyms for "drop dead" in this example, but they reference death more obliquely, and I wanted to emphasize the specific theme of hyperbolic phrases that include death. – Katy Feb 7 at 5:21
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    It's seems a relevant consideration that "drop dead" is a further exaggeration of "stunning", in that it expresses the effect that this gorgeous person has on people who see them. – Flater Feb 7 at 9:33
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    I believe it is also connected to the phrase to stop dead in one's tracks. While travelling, something so surprising or stunning causes us to stop immediately. Dropping dead is a further exaggeration of this state of shock or awe. Stop dead is to stop immediately, drop dead makes it fatal. – Andy G Feb 8 at 15:12
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    See also, knockout and to die for. – Will Crawford Feb 8 at 17:53
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A first degree paraphrase of:

This person is drop dead gorgeous.

is:

This person is so gorgeous that I could drop dead.

That is, "drop dead" is a description of the reaction of onlookers: they could drop dead due to the shock of seeing such a gorgeous person.


There are other similar expressions in English: shockingly, stunningly, and they are all tied to physical reactions that onlookers could experience (and display).

Imagine a teenage popstar walking down a mall, and the ripples it would create in the crowd:

  • jaws dropping,
  • eyes bugging out,
  • fingers pointing,
  • people stopping to look,
  • fans fainting,
  • ...
0

I used to think that the phrase 'Drop dead gorgeous' was Victorian in origin, due to the Victorian habit of using mercury and arsenic in their beauty products and thus killing the person using them. But I'm unable to find any reference to this.

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    That really looks like a typical folk etymology. – Vladimir F Feb 7 at 9:38
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    @VladimirF yes, all my research on this suggests it's 20th century in origin. – JGNI Feb 7 at 9:42
  • The idea of someone being so beautiful even in death is not new. Shakespeare wrote: Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty; Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet Is crimson in thy lips, and in thy cheeks, And death's pale flag is not advanced there. (Romeo & Juliet, Act V, scene 3, line 92.) – Rick Ryker Feb 7 at 17:37
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    This is entirely and wholly incorrect. – Fattie Feb 8 at 12:37
0

Compare "Heart-stoppingly beautiful", with the same meaning and the same metaphor of killing the viewer. With heart-stopping it's clearly referring to excitement/rising blood pressure.

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