You have probably heard the often-repeated story about how the original “dead ringer” was a person believed to be dead who was then buried alive. For various reasons, there is a good amount of evidence that being buried alive wasn’t the most uncommon thing in the world until relatively recently in human history (particularly as nobody used to want to exam the diseased deceased too closely). So there were cases of people being buried alive accidentally.
Indeed, in 1896 T.M. Montgomery, who was supervising the disinterment of remains at the Fort Randall Cemetery, reported that a little over 2% of those bodies exhumed were definitely victims of being accidentally buried alive. In other words, about 2% woke up, tried to claw their way out, and were unable to do so. Given the oxygen supply in a coffin doesn’t last that long, it is likely the actual percentage of people buried alive was higher, when you include the ones who didn’t wake, but were still technically alive when buried.
In any event, to prevent deaths by burial, a string would supposedly be attached to the finger of the person presumed dead, and it was attached to a bell on the other end above ground. When the person moved, the bell would ring. And that was what you would call a “dead ringer.”
The truth is, though, “dead ringer” doesn’t have anything to do with people being buried alive, as you perhaps guessed considering the preceding origin theory does nothing to explain the reason why the phrase now means “an exact duplicate or replica.” Instead, actual documented evidence points to a different story entirely: horses.
In the 1800s, a “ringer” was a stand-in for a horse at a race. Sometimes, people would clandestinely replace a slower horse with a faster horse or vice versa for later betting purposes. Of course, the horses had to look very similar in order for this con to be pulled off.
In 1882, an article published in the Manitoba Free Press described this: “A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.’”
The word “ringer” started out as a word for someone who rang bells, such as the bells in a church. The jump from ringing bells to switching out horses probably seems like a big one, but in the early 1600s another phrase appeared that helps sort it all out. That phrase is “ring the changes,” today meaning “to do something in a different way in order to make it more interesting.” Originally, this simply meant that the bell ringer was ringing a pattern of bells that included all variations and eventually brought the ring back to its starting point.
However, a variation of “ring the changes” cropped up by the 18th and 19th centuries which meant “substitute counterfeit money for good.” From there, it is easy to see why the term “ringer” would be applied to a horse that was secretly substituted in for another in horse racing.
The horse ringers obviously were not dead, though, or they wouldn’t be able to race. In this case, the word “dead” is used to mean “exact or precise,” as with many other phrases that use the word, such as “dead centre.” This meaning has been around since the 16th century, though exactly how the word’s meaning morphed from actual death to “exact” isn’t known.
“Dead” was added to “ringer” soon after ringer started being applied to horses. The first known published case of “dead ringer” appears in the Oshkosh Weekly Times in June 1888:
“Dat ar is a markable semlance be shoo”, said Hart looking critically at the picture. “Dat’s a dead ringer fo me. I nebber done see such a semblence.
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- The false dead ringer etymology stems from a chain letter titled “Life in the 1500s” which circulated in 1999 and claimed that when graveyards started becoming overcrowded, people would dig up old graves in order to free up space for new burials. When they cracked the coffins open, one in every twenty-five coffins had scratch marks on the inside, indicating that the dead person had awoken and was trying to get out. This caused them to attach the bells. While there is some evidence that a very small percentage of people were accidentally buried alive centuries ago, this chain letter’s specific assertions, not just in this instance, were mostly nonsense. If you’re interested in a significantly more accurate “interesting fact” newsletter, might I humbly suggest our very popular Daily Knowledge Newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.
- The false “dead ringer” origin story may have you wondering about “saved by the bell.” While it wasn’t at all widespread, there were, in fact, bells that were used for the very purpose of alerting those above that you were still alive, but it was only on a very few graves—likely people who had such a great fear of being buried alive that they had requested it. That said, “saved by the bell” is more likely related to boxing, as the earliest evidence of the phrase’s use is in reference to boxing. When a boxer was losing, he would be “saved” by the bell that indicated the round was completed.
- Another phrase supposedly related to “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell” is “graveyard shift.” The story goes that there was always a person at the graveyard at night who was listening for the dead ringers to pull on the bells so that they could save them. It’s somewhat possible that such people existed, but the phrase itself, once again, probably has nothing to do with graveyards at all. Rather, graveyard shifts—which take place in the dead of night—are quiet and lonely, a bit like graveyards themselves. The phrase first appeared in the 1800s. Similarly, “graveyard watch” was a term used by sailors given the night watch. In this case, it also has nothing to do with literal graveyards, but is thought to relate to shipwrecks and other disasters commonly occurring during the dead of night.
- “Life in the 1500s” didn’t stop at creating false etymologies for these three phrases. In another death-related phrase, they would “hold a wake.” In this case, people would supposedly lay dead people across the kitchen table and party for a few days in an attempt to wake them up. If it didn’t work, they were presumed dead and buried (but with that pesky bell around their finger, just in case). Needless to say, Life in the 1500s’ accuracy track record wasn’t exactly the best. I mean, nobody bats a thousand, but they seemingly wouldn’t have even made the baseball team.
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