Friday’s Phrase – Saved by the Bell

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:          “saved by the bell”

After last week’s phrase ‘graveyard shift’ and its widely accepted, yet erroneous history, I thought we should dive a little deeper into this history and one of the phrases that shares this incorrect origin story.

Current accepted meaning:

Informal

  1. to be spared from a troublesome event because of something that happens extraneous.
  2. to be rescued at the last moment before harm comes.

“I was having a hard time explaining my actions, then her phone rang, and I was saved by the bell.

Historical Recorded Use:

The earliest reference to this, that I can find, is in the Massachusetts newspaper, The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, dated February 1893:

“Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.”

Etymology:

The expression is boxing slang and it came into being in the latter half of the 19th century. A boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from defeat by the respite signaled by the ‘bell’ that marks the end of a round. It is just that simple.

Conclusion:

There is a widespread notion that ‘saved by the bell’ originated as an expression that relates to people being buried alive. The idea was that, if someone were comatose and mistakenly pronounced dead and interred, they could, if they later revived, ring a bell that was attached to the coffin and be saved. The idea is certainly plausible as the fear of being buried alive was and is real. Several prominent people expressed this fear when close to death themselves:

“All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive.” – Lord Chesterfield, 1769.

“Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.” – deathbed request of George Washington.

“Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.”– Frederic Chopin’s last words.

Just as real were the devices themselves, several of which were patented in England and in the USA. These were known as ‘safety coffins’ and designs were registered in the 19th century and up to as late as 1955; for example:

The Improved Burial Case.
Patent No. 81,437 Franz Vester, Newark, New Jersey. Dr.-Tabergers-Safety-Coffin[1]
August 25, 1868.

As well as a handy bell, Vester’s device had the novel enhancement of a glass screen to view the coffin’s occupant. Presumably the mourners could wave to the deceased and, if he waved back, they knew they were on to something.

There’s no evidence to show that anyone was ever saved by these coffins or even that they were ever put to use, and there’s a similar lack of evidence of the phrase ‘saved by the bell’ ever being used in that sense prior to it having been used in other contexts.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

While we are here, let’s debunk the phrase ‘dead ringer’, also associated with the buried alive theory of origin. A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. The word is defined for us in a copy of the Manitoba Free Press, from October 1882:

“A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.'”

It has since been adopted into the language to mean any very close duplicate. As a verb, ‘ring’ has long been used to mean ‘exchange/substitute’ in a variety of situations, most of them illegal. From the same period is the term ‘ring castors’, meaning to surreptitiously exchange hats. Castors, or casters, were hats made from beaver fur. From the 20th century we have the Australian phrase, ‘ring in the gray (or knob)’, meaning to substitute a double-sided penny for a genuine one. Coming more up to date we have ‘car ringing’, which is the replacing of the identification numbers on a stolen car with those from a genuine (usually scrapped) vehicle.

So, that’s ringer; what about dead? Dead, in the sense of lifeless, is so commonly used that we tend to ignore its other meanings. The meaning that’s relevant here is ‘exact’ or ‘precise’. This is demonstrated in many phrases; ‘dead shot’, ‘dead center’, ‘dead heat’, etc.

Comments
6 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – Saved by the Bell”
  1. Jim Borden says:

    when I hear the phrase saved by the bell, I usually think of boxing. never knew it also had a darker meaning.

  2. I look forward to these weekly posts, and this one did not disappoint!

  3. meenawalia says:

    Dead ringer..sad to know fraud happens everywhere

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