In the following sentence, which I encountered when I was learning French on Duolingo (but my native language is not English):

What do you mean, dead?

In my dictionary, there is no description of such use of dead. The closest one is likely the one equivalent to absolutely.

So what does dead mean in these cases? Does it mean the speaker does not understand what the listener was saying at all?

And also is it considered vulgar to use dead in these cases?

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    In what way does the dictionary definition of dead (opposite of alive) not fit here, in your opinion? – Aethenosity Mar 9 '19 at 18:16
  • Sometimes it pays to say the meaning of the sentence out loud in your native tongue....Oh those poor suffering kids learning French on that site....:) – Lambie Mar 26 '19 at 1:00

In the construction What do you mean, X?, X is "echoic": a word or phrase (or even a complete sentence) quoted from the previous speaker's utterance. The construction may ask for confirmation or explanation of X, or it may express disbelief or shock.

A: Our proposal is dead.
B: What do you mean, dead? As in the boss rejected it, or we're withdrawing it?

A: Bill's dead.
B: What do you mean, dead? I spoke with him just yesterday!

ADDED: So X—dead, in your example—means just what it ordinarily means in the context in which the first speaker uttered it.

And of course (as Michael Harvey and David Richerby gently point out) X can be virtually anything:

A: I've just finished the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.
B: What do you mean, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics? The assignment was the Critique of Pure Reason!

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    Your car's been stolen. What do you mean, stolen? – Michael Harvey Mar 8 '19 at 14:03
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    Or, to paraphrase your last example, A: I Kant. B: What do you mean, you Kant? – Jason Bassford Mar 9 '19 at 6:38
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    @JasonBassford I tried, but I Kuhn't come up with a better paradigm. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 9 '19 at 14:02
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    @StoneyB You couldn't Russell something up? Don't these pun threads Plato your advantage? – David Richerby Mar 9 '19 at 16:10
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    @BobJarvis Yeah. Maybe we need to Locke it down. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 10 '19 at 13:26

I'm surprised that no other answer yet has mentioned that what we have here is a mention, not a use, of the word "dead." Properly punctuated, the sentence would be:

What do you mean, "dead"?

or to use a slightly older punctuation style,

What do you mean — "dead"?

That is, the speaker doesn't know what the addressee meant by the word "dead," and is asking for clarification.

What do you mean by "dead"?

Omitting the quotation marks is just a colloquial shorthand (like using a short pause — indicated by comma or em-dash — instead of the word "by").

The other answerers are absolutely correct that most likely the speaker is trying to convey that he doesn't believe his ears.

He's dead, Jim.

What do you mean, "dead"? You mean, like, unconscious? In a coma? You can't possibly mean that he's actually dead!

Regarding the use-mention distinction, consider the difference between

VADER: Luke, I am your father.
LUKE [incredulous]: What do you mean, "father"?


VADER: Luke, I am your father.
LUKE [immediately deferential]: What do you mean, father?

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    Vader says "NO I am your father" – nomen Mar 9 '19 at 6:14
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    I think it's more commonly interpreted as an indirect quotation and not a mention of the word, hence no quotation marks. Compare A: I can't do it. - B: What do you mean, you can't? and the (at least to me) more unusual A: I can't do it. - B: What do you mean, "I can't"?. – flornquake Mar 9 '19 at 11:40
  • Thinking about it, there were a lot more dramatic possibilities in, "LUKE - I AM YOUR MOTHER!" :-) – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Mar 9 '19 at 21:05
  • What do you mean, "What do you mean"? – Ouroborus Mar 10 '19 at 5:35

That would usually be said as an expression of disbelief on being told that someone is dead. It means the same as the everyday adjective dead, because that's what it is. You might consider it as ellipsis of "what do you mean, he's dead?"

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Here’s how this question might be used:

Doctor: I’m sorry, but the patient is dead.

Patient’s relative: What do you mean, dead?!

Doctor: I’m very sorry for your loss.

In other words, someone would say this if they could not believe another person was dead even after being told of the fact. It’s a rhetorical question; no answer is really expected. In my scenario the doctor could have said “Well, the patient stopped breathing and I don’t hear a pulse and they don’t respond to stimuli” but that would probably be tactless; the relative probably would not want to hear all about how the doctor knows the patient is dead upon learning of the death.

And no, it is not vulgar to say this, since you asked.

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  • I wonder, does the OP think it might be vulgar to say 'dead' because so many people censor death and say that someone 'passed away' etc? I did once hear someone say that an aunt had 'crossed the Jordan'. – Michael Harvey Mar 8 '19 at 19:09
  • Wow... that’s quite the euphemism. Cultural differences, I guess. I could see that this might be the thinking, though of course would have to defer to the OP. Also, it should be noted that someone would likely be in an emotional state while saying this, so it’s not exactly a polite or restrained thing to say. – Mixolydian Mar 8 '19 at 19:19
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    Also just noticed that the OP wonders if “dead” means “absolutely” in this context. No, absolutely not- it most certainly means “not alive.” An expression like “You are dead wrong” has this meaning of “absolutely.” – Mixolydian Mar 8 '19 at 19:20
  • Mixolydian - I think you have to be sensitive to a bereaved person's feelings - when my own mother died I got so sick of people dressing it up with euphemisms. She was dead. She died. We all die. – Michael Harvey Mar 8 '19 at 19:24
  • The aunt who had crossed the Jordan had done so decades before. I forebore to ask if she was going to Israel, Jordan Syria, or the West Bank. – Michael Harvey Mar 8 '19 at 19:27

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