Hello Teachers

I often come across an idiomatic phrase "A person wouldn't/won't be caught dead X". Here X is a present participle (doing something) or a prepositional phrase to mean a state of the subject. Examples;
(1) Did you see Jane's super-low rise? I won't be caught dead in that.
(2) Most kids my age wouldn't be caught dead with their parents in public.
(3) Today youngsters wouldn't be caught dead without cell-phones and computers.
(4) My daughter wouldn't be caught dead in a ballet class; she prefers to play soccer.
(5) We try to assemble a group of 13 people who in a million years wouldn't be caught dead under one roof."
(6) I wouldn't be caught dead marrying a woman enough old to be my wife.
I know the phrase is almost synonymous to "rather die than do or be in a state (expressed by X)." But what sense has the verbal 'be caught dead' exactly? Is it a passive voice of "to catch (=capture) somebody dead"?

Yes, it is. 'I would not be caught dead (by anyone) picking my teeth in public.'
Perhaps it's just one step beyond "Over my dead body!"
In this case you admit that something may happen, but only if you are dead, i.e., someone would have to kill you to succeed!

But with "caught dead", you're saying that EVEN IF you were dead, you would somehow see to it that whatever it is does not happen! (Pretty crazy, isn't it?)

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'I wouldn't be seen dead...' is quite common too.

I read the phrase slightly differently—so e.g. 'I wouldn't be seen dead in that dress':

'Even if I were dead, and therefore in a condition where pride in my appearance had no further meaning, I would still refuse to wear that dress.'

(There is indeed a hyperbolic aspect to the idiom.)

Micawber and MrP

Thank you a lot for your replies. I'm afraid I did not make my question in a right way. What I wanted to know was the sense of the word "catch" in "wouldn't be caught dead". I found this phrase in my English-Japanese dictionary but I can't find it in the OED. What the OED gives is only the version MrP told ;"wouldn't be seen/found dead". So I feel the version "wouldn't be caught dead" is the one that recently came to be in fashion in America. My thought is the first speaker of this phrase ("wouldn't be caught dead") used "catch" in the sense of "see"/"found"/"watch"/"intelectually seize", not in that of "capture"/"physically seize". Is it right?


Thank you for telling me about "over my dead body". This phrase is also new to me and so I learned it a bit using net information. It also sounds quite hyperbolic.

Hello Paco san

The non-physical sense of 'catch' is as you surmise; but it usually also implies that the person 'caught' would rather not have been, e.g.

'I caught my son looking at a very dubious website last night.'
'His wife caught him with the au pair.'
'I caught him smoking behind the bike sheds.'

There are other 'catch' idioms:

'I caught up with Peter last night' - 'I finally got hold of Peter for a chat last night'.
'I just caught the last ten minutes of the football' - 'I just managed to watch the last 10 minutes of the football'.
'He caught me one round the ear' - 'he hit me over the ear'.
'He caught me a fourpenny one' - 'he hit me quite hard' (usually in the eye).
'You'll catch it!' - to a naughty child: 'you will be punished severely when someone finds out!'

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Thank you MrP for confirming my thought.
The non-physical sense of 'catch' is as you surmise; but it usually also implies that the person 'caught' would rather not have been

I see. So probably these ones make no sense. Right?
1) I caught my son studying hard the night before the exam.
2) His wife caught him with her grand mother.
3) I caught him smoking in his private room.

By the way the word 'au pair' is new to me. Is an "au pair" usually a girl?
And I cannot get how come a four-penny came to mean 'a blow' or 'a scolding'.

Hello Paco san

They make sense, but the 'caught' gives the action in each case a particular tone:

1. The son affects to do no work at all for his exams, and would have been horribly embarrassed to be caught 'swotting'.
2. Her grandmother is clearly still an attractive woman.
3. He'd been telling everyone he'd given up smoking.

An 'au pair' is indeed usually a girl. The phrase has curious implications. Every English male brightens at the thought of employing an 'au pair'. He can hardly believe his luck if his wife suggests it. When he tells his friends, they will make inappropriate comments, in which he will bask happily. Both he and his friends will spend a great deal of time discussing the likely physical appearance of the prospective au pair. Traditionalists will hope for a 'Swedish' au pair. (This category includes any Scandinavian type.) Modernists prefer the more southern European variety. The latter are considered to be more likely to wander through the house in a state of undress. Their personal morals are also assumed to be more lax. (It goes without saying that the au pair is expected to wreak havoc in the family home.)

In reality, of course, the wife of the male in question chooses the au pair. His hopes are rarely realised.

I have a dim recollection that 'fourpenny one' may refer to the cost of the beefsteak applied to the black eye that ensues. But I wouldn't swear to it.


Your story about choice of au pairs is very interesting. I stayed half a year in Sweden when young and so I know what you mean by "Swedish girls". Some (not all) of them were really pretty. My working place was a cafe located in Stockholm's business center and many of the guests were young working women. Most of them were fluent English speakers. Some were learning French then and talked to me they would go to Paris to polish French besides doing some work. It was a story of about *** years ago.

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