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dead letter

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noun
  1. a law, ordinance, etc., that has lost its force but has not been formally repealed or abolished.
  2. a letter that cannot reach the addressee or be returned to the sender, usually because of incorrect address, and that is sent to and handled in a special division or department (dead-letter office) of a general post office.
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Origin of dead letter

First recorded in 1570–80
Related formsdead-let·ter, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for dead letter

Historical Examples

  • After a long time it came back from the German dead-letter office.

    Lost

    Edward Bellamy

  • System, punctuality, industry, belong to the Dead-letter Office.

  • If people do not steal our horses the reward is a dead-letter.

    Nevermore

    Rolf Boldrewood

  • I got it back in the face by way of the dead-letter office where they know me.

    Cordwood

    Edgar Wilson (Bill) Nye

  • But the most exciting day of all was when they visited the Dead-letter Office.


British Dictionary definitions for dead letter

dead letter

noun
  1. a letter that cannot be delivered or returned because it lacks adequate directions
  2. a law or ordinance that is no longer enforced but has not been formally repealed
  3. informal anything considered no longer worthy of consideration
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Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Idioms and Phrases with dead letter

dead letter

1

An unclaimed or undelivered letter that is eventually destroyed or returned to the sender. For example, She moved without leaving a forwarding address, so her mail ended up in the dead letter office. [c. 1700]

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2

A statute or directive that is still valid but in practice is not enforced. For example, The blue laws here are a dead letter; all the stores open on Sundays and holidays. [Second half of 1600s]

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The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.