Friday’s Phrase – Graveyard Shift

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:          “graveyard shift”

Have you ever heard someone refer to working the ‘graveyard shift’? In the United States, it is a common phrase and its meaning is ubiquitous. However, its origins are steeped in folk lore and controversy.

Current accepted meaning:

NOUN

  1. A work shift that runs through the early morning hours, typically covering the period between midnight and 8 a.m.

“As the newest employee, I was relegated to working the graveyard shift.”

Historical Recorded Use:

The earliest example of the phrase in print that I have found is in the US newspaper The Salt Lake Tribune, June 1897:

The police changed shifts for the month yesterday. This month Sergeant Ware takes the morning relief. Sergeant Matt Rhodes the middle and Sergeant John Burbidge the graveyard shift.

However, the explicit definition is not found until it is offered by the American mariner Gershom Bradford, in A Glossary of Sea Terms, 1927:

Graveyard watch: the middle watch or 12 to 4 a.m., because of the number of disasters that occur at this time.”

In this definition, Bradford does not include any reference to the term stemming from the loneliness and darkness that were a large part of standing that particular watch at sea, although other theories of origin attempt to make this point.

Etymology:

The popular theory, although entertaining and a bit creepy, comes from an oft repeated origin, that goes something like this:

England is old and small. When they started running out of places to bury people, they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a “bone-house” and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So, they thought 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.

Oddly enough, there is no record of anyone actually being saved by these devices. And, as this practiced is touted to have occurred in the 16th century, we would expect to find it in print much sooner than 1897.

Although the written record reflects the first usage in print to be thirty years prior to its nautical reference and definition. It is more likely that the nautical terminology was the birth of the phrase. By the time the phrase appears in The Salt Lake Tribune, it would have been a commonly used and understood phrase to the journalist and reader. Add to this the proximity of Salt Lake City to the docks and piers frequented by sailors on Great Salt Lake, and it is easy to connect it to its nautical origins.

Conclusion:

As someone who has been at sea at night, I can tell you it gets dark, but usually not lonely. The standard practice on vessels of the time was to have two sailors as a minimum for any watch, even the ‘graveyard’ watch. One was always a ship’s officer, usually the lowest ranking officer. And the other was normally a deck hand. Having two not only increased the ability to keep eyes on waters now dark, but also relieved the officer from the drudgery of physically adjusting, hoisting or furling sails, which would be considered beneath his station. It also helped to assure that no one person could fall asleep on watch and put the vessel in peril. It is more likely the reference in Bradford’s definition, as to the watch on which most accidents occur, is truly its source.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

The ‘burying people alive’ theory is just plain creepy and fun to tell, but unfortunately its accuracy is easily questioned. But that didn’t stop it!

This theory was so popular and widespread, that it has also been used as an origin for adages such as ‘saved by the bell’ and ‘dead ringer’. Maybe we can debunk those erroneous theories in a future post. But believe me for now, they do not come from anything to do with a graveyard or coffins.

Comments
4 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – Graveyard Shift”
  1. meenawalia says:

    Saved by the bell must be for some sports event I think.
    Great info.Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jim Borden says:

    interesting post, thanks. Fortunately, I’ve never had to work the graveyard shift. Either you or Snopes has to look into that ringing the bell legend!

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