dead letter


Definition of dead letter

1 : something that has lost its force or authority without being formally abolished
2 : a letter that is undeliverable and unreturnable by the post office

Examples of dead letter in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Were these powers beyond the reach of the people’s power, impeachment would be a dead letter. Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, "The Invention—and Reinvention—of Impeachment," 21 Oct. 2019 Without one, Section 5 is effectively a dead letter, with dire consequences for the integrity of American democracy. Matt Ford, The New Republic, "How the Supreme Court Kills Roe v. Wade," 11 July 2018 Unfortunately, many lower courts have treated NAACP v. Alabama as a dead letter, inapplicable to other cases. Bradley A. Smith, WSJ, "The Threat to Privacy of Opinion," 28 June 2018 These laws aren’t just dead letters, either; southern conservative politicians are touting them as a sword against local governments who dare take down Confederate monuments, not just a shield against protestors and defilers. Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, "The Political Uses of The Anti-Anti-Confederacy," 19 Apr. 2018 For that crowd, American patriotism — love for our creeds of liberty and devotion to the Constitution — is already a dead letter. Jonah Goldberg, National Review, "American Nationalists Are Awfully Quiet about Russia," 16 Feb. 2018 But the reality is that, because of such misgivings, the border tax probably has been a dead letter for months now, though its proponents haven’t given up. Gerald F. Seib, WSJ, "While Health Care Divides the Party, Republicans Hope Tax Cuts Will Unite," 18 July 2017 But rather than rest its case on tried and true constitutional provisions, the government watchdog asked a federal judge to bring to life, for the first time in American history, the dead letter of the foreign emoluments clause. Cristian Farias, Daily Intelligencer, "Are Foreign Payments to Trump’s Businesses Unconstitutional? We’re About to Find Out.," 19 Oct. 2017

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'dead letter.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of dead letter

1627, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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Time Traveler for dead letter

Time Traveler

The first known use of dead letter was in 1627

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Statistics for dead letter

Last Updated

22 Nov 2019

Cite this Entry

“Dead letter.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 14 December 2019.

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More Definitions for dead letter

dead letter


English Language Learners Definition of dead letter

: a letter that cannot be delivered or returned by the post office because of an incorrect address or other problem
: a law or agreement that has lost its force or authority

More from Merriam-Webster on dead letter

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with dead letter

Comments on dead letter

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to assail by words or arguments

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