A village cemetery in Scotland.
The fear of being buried alive has been linked to some common phrases including 'graveyard shift'. Image by Diana Plater/AAP IMAGES

Phrase origins linked to burials is dead wrong

David Williams May 6, 2022

The phrases "dead ringer", "graveyard shift" and "saved by the bell" originate from historical attempts to prevent people being buried alive.


False. The etymology of the phrases can be traced to industries with no links to burials.

The fear of being buried alive, a psychological condition known as taphophobia, fills some people with dread and has been the subject of many horror films and macabre stories.

But lexicographers reject a claim made in a Facebook post that the fear is behind common phrases such as “dead ringer”, “graveyard shift” and “saved by the bell”.

The claim the etymology of those phrases links to practices from England in the 1500s has been made and also debunked for years – as seen in David Wilton’s 2008 book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends.

But a Facebook meme purporting to describe life in the 1500s and the origins of various popular phrases continues to make false links between 16th-century English burial practices and the phrases.

The meme, seen in this Facebook post (screenshot here), was shared as recently as April 10 with other examples here, here, here, here and here.

The last sentences of the meme read: “England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive… So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.”

Linguistics experts told AAP FactCheck the post’s claim about the origins of “graveyard shift”, “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell” is wrong.

Pam Peters, emeritus professor with Macquarie University’s linguistics department, described the claim as “creative interpretations in relation to the burial scenario given, but plain wrong in each case”.

Prof Peters referred to the Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of each phrase, describing the OED as “the go-to source for English language historical lexicography”.

For example, she says “graveyard shift”, like the term graveyard watch, “is a well-used metaphor for working in the dark hours of the 24-hour day, found in working contexts such as the casino or ship according to the citations. Those for ‘graveyard watch’ associate it with maritime usage, suggesting that the metaphor originated in sailors’ jargon – whether or not because of the (large) number of shipping disasters that occurred at that time of day”.

Professor Jane Simpson of the Australian National University and deputy director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, also referred to the OED, highlighting “saved by the bell” had its origins in boxing, and meant “to be saved from being counted out by the ringing of the bell at the end of a round”.

She points out the OED cites published uses of the phrase in boxing have been traced back as far as 1909, with the February 16 edition of the Galveston (Texas) Daily News: “Rob Wilson … was saved by the bell from a knockout in the tenth and last round of his bout with Young Corbett”.

Rebecca Shapiro, an associate professor of English and linguistics at New York City College of Tech and an expert in sociolinguistics, dictionary writing, and etymology, said all three phrases in the post were false etymologies.

Dr Shapiro referred to a 2010 episode of the A Way With Words radio show, which broadly debunks the claim. “These stories are so great but they have nothing to do with those etymologies” (3min 27sec mark).

It also references the Word Myths book, which debunks each phrase (from page 76), and says of “dead ringer”: “Like saved by the bell, the term dead ringer has nothing to do with life in Elizabethan England or, for that matter, with death. Instead, ringer has its origin in late-nineteenth-century horseracing, meaning a horse that passes for another in a race. The term appears in 1890. From horseracing, the term spread to other, more legitimate activities. The term dead ringer appears as U.S. slang in 1891. The dead actually has nothing to do with death, but rather refers to precision, as in dead on, dead center, and dead heat. The term probably has origins going back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when the verb to ring was first used to denote the testing of a coin to see if it was counterfeit. People would literally strike a coin with the finger or another object to see if it rang. If it did, it was genuine.”

The Phrasefinder website agrees the word “ringer” originated in the US horse-racing industry at the end of the 19th century. It references its use in the Manitoba Free Press newspaper from October 1882: “A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.'”

A blog on the Grammarphobia website cites the OED to argue the word “ringer” was published even earlier – in the Colorado newspaper, the Weekly Register-Call of Central City (1878): “The knight of La Mancha storming a wind mill, is a ‘dead ringer,’ so to speak, for Windy Bill riding down a phalanx of Mexicans on a long-eared mule.”

A lengthy discussion on “dead ringer”, “graveyard shift” and “saved by the bell” can also be found in a 2019 episode of the word history podcast Bunny Trails.

The Verdict

The post’s claim linking the phrases “dead ringer”, “graveyard shift” and “saved by the bell” to a historical practice of preventing people from being buried alive is false. Linguistic experts told AAP FactCheck the etymology of each phrase can be traced to horse racing, sailing and boxing, which has been established by sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

False ÔÇô The claim is inaccurate.

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