Q: My mother used to use the expression “like a death’s head at a feast” to describe a particularly disagreeable person at a social function. I use it myself, from time to time, much to the amusement of my adult children. Can you shed any light on the origin of this expression?
A: A death’s head, as you’re undoubtedly aware, is a representation of the human skull that’s a symbol of mortality. The symbol has embellished jewelry, paintings, sculpture, tombstones, and so on since the Middle Ages.
In fact, people have worn death’s head rings since at least the 1500s as a reminder of mortality, or memento mori.
As far as we can tell, the expression used by your mother first showed up in writing in the early 1700s, but it hasn’t shown up very often. We’ve found only a few dozen examples in our searches of literary archives.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from an amusing anecdote about a fancy-dress, or costume, ball, in the Sept. 7, 1713, issue of the Guardian, a short-lived newspaper founded by Richard Steele:
“In the middle of the first Room I met with one drest in a Shrowd. This put me in mind of the old Custom of serving up a Death’s Head at a Feast. I was a little angry at the Dress, and asked the Gentleman whether he thought a Dead Man was fit Company for such an Assembly; but he told me that he was one who loved his Mony, and that he considered this Dress would serve him another time.”
And here’s an example from Denis Duval, an unfinished novel that William Makepeace Thackeray was working on when he died in 1863: “His appearance at the Count’s little suppers was as cheerful as a death’s-head at a feast.”
The Oxford English Dictionary includes the Thackeray citation in its discussion of “death’s head,” but the OED doesn’t explain the origin of the full expression. And we couldn’t find anything about it in any of the reference works, online of off, that we usually consult.
However, the expression has clearly been used the way your mother used it—to describe a killjoy at a social event—as in this example from Lodore, an 1835 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley:
“She looked strangely grim and out of place among all those merry young people at the wedding breakfast—like death’s head at a feast, as they say, and she had a certain dignified air of disapprobation at times on her countenance, when she looked at my dear, sweet Miss Thornhaugh, which made me hate her—such a contrast to her brother!”
The OED does discuss the origin of two similar expressions, “a skeleton at the feast” and “a skeleton at the banquet,” which the dictionary defines as “a reminder of serious or saddening things in the midst of enjoyment; a source of gloom or depression.”
Oxford describes the “skeleton” versions as an “allusion to the practice of the ancient Egyptians, as recorded by Plutarch in his Moralia,” a collection of writings about morality.
In “The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men,” a section in the Moralia, the first-century Greek scholar writes:
“Now the skeleton which in Egypt they are wont, with fair reason, to bring in and expose at their parties, urging the guests to remember that what it is now, they soon shall be, although it is an ungracious and unseasonable companion to be introduced at a merry-making, yet has a certain timeliness, even if it does not incline the guests to drinking and enjoyment, but rather to a mutual friendliness and affection, and if it urges upon them that life, which is short in point of time, should not be made long by evil conduct.”
(We’ve used the Loeb Classical Library‘s translation of the Moralia.)
The earliest OED example for a “skeleton” expression is from Guy Livingstone, an 1857 novel by the British writer and barrister George Alfred Lawrence: “The skeleton of ennui sat at these dreary feasts; and it was not even crowned with roses.”
The dictionary’s latest example is from A Lonely Girl, an 1896 novel by the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: “To give him leisure to act the skeleton at the feast.”
We’ll end with a more recent example from The Masters, a 1951 novel by C. P. Snow about the contested election for a new head at a Cambridge college:
“I don’t want to be a skeleton at the feast, because I’ve been feeling very gratified myself, but I think it would be remiss not to remind you that the thing’s still open.”
from Grammarphobia http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/02/deaths-head.html