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6 Widely Repeated Phrase Origins—Debunked!

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Recently we busted some myths about the popular email “Life in the 1500s.” Here are the rest of the tall tales, shrunk to fit reality.

1. Dead ringer

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The Tall Tale: England is old and small and they 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, 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; thus, someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer."

The Facts: Snopes.com rounds up many accounts of live burial, feared and real, including only one instance of scratch marks purportedly discovered in a coffin lid. The idea of a signaling system inside a coffin didn’t occur until the late 19th century, when Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to the Tsar, after hearing a horrifying account of girl nearly buried alive, patented a safety coffin. The slightest movement of the chest or arms of the body inside the coffin would trigger a complex mechanism to admit air into the coffin, ring a bell and wave a flag above.

But all that has nothing to do with the origin of the expression dead ringer. Ringer is slang for a look-alike horse, athlete, etc. fraudulently substituted for another in a competition or sporting event. It comes from an earlier slang verb to ring or to ring the changes, meaning to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item. (Ring the changes harkens back to “change-ringing”: using a team of bell ringers to play tunes on church bells.) The ringer was originally the person arranging the fraudulent swap; later it came to mean the substituted competitor. Dead is used in the sense "absolute, exact, complete," as in “dead ahead” or “dead right.” So a dead ringer is an exact look-alike.

2. Saved by the bell

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The origin of saved by the bell is not in coffin contraptions or even the ardent prayers of students to be spared of answering a tough question by the clanging of the end-of-period bell. The classroom meaning is an extension of the original source of the phrase: boxing. It means to be saved from being counted out by the bell at the end of a round, and is first documented in the early 20th century.

 3. Graveyard shift

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The graveyard shift has nothing to with literal graveyards, just the lonesome, uneasy feeling of working in the dark silence of the midnight hours. The expression first appears in the late 19th century. In 1895, the New Albany Evening Tribune for May 15 has a story about coal mining that begins, “It was dismal enough to be on the graveyard shift…” On August 17, 1906, Marshall, Michigan's The Marshall Expounder, in a piece entitled “Ghosts in Deep Mines,” says, “And of all superstitions there are none more weird than those of the ‘graveyard’ shift…usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.” Sailors similarly had a “graveyard watch,” usually from midnight to 4 a.m. According to Gershom Bradford in A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927), the watch was so called “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time,” but another source attributes the term to the silence throughout the ship.

4. Upper crust

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The Tall Tale: Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

The Facts: An isolated source hints at such a custom. One of the first printed books on household management, John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, circa 1460, says (translated into modern English), “Take a loaf…and lay [a trencher] before your lord; lay four trenchers four-square, and another on the top. Take a loaf of light bread, pare the edges, cut the upper crust for your lord.” It’s not clear whether the upper crust was considered the tastiest nibble or the sturdiest substitute for a plate, but such instructions have cropped up nowhere else. Over the centuries, the phrase upper crust appears in reference to the earth’s surface, bread and pies. But it’s not until the 19th century that we find it used to mean upper class, so the connection with the apportioning of a loaf is dubious.

In the 19th century, upper crust appears as a slang term for the human head or a hat. In 1826, The Sporting Magazine reported, “Tom completely tinkered his antagonist’s upper-crust.” Most likely it’s simply the idea of the upper crust being the top that made it a metaphor for the aristocracy. Here’s how Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it in 1838's The Clockmaker; or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville:It was none o' your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

5. Trench mouth

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The Tall Tale: Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, pieces of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

The Facts: Trencher, from Anglo-Norman, is related to modern French trancher, to cut or slice. It appears in English in the 1300s meaning either a knife; a flat piece of wood on which meat was sliced and served; a platter of wood, metal or earthenware; or a slice of bread used as a plate or platter.

Wooden carving boards can be breeding grounds for pathogens, but they have nothing to do with the origin of the phrase trench mouth. One of the earliest mentions of the term appears in the journal Progressive Medicine in 1917. If that date makes you think of World War I and trench warfare, you’re right. Trench mouth is ulcerative gingivitis caused not by worms or mold, but by bacteria, probably spread among troops in the trenches when they shared water bottles.

6. Wake

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The Tall Tale: Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock a person out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up—hence the custom of holding a "wake."

The Facts: The English could hold their ale in the 16th century. It was considered more healthful than water and was part of daily life, even for breakfast. Strong liquor (except for brandy, “a woman’s drink”) was not popular. Some people had pewter cups, which contained lead, but lead poisoning is generally a gradual, cumulative process. If anyone got knocked out from drinking mass quantities of ale from a pewter cup, don’t blame the lead. Nevertheless, the practice in many world societies of holding a wake for the dead arose at least partly from the fear of burying them prematurely. In the British Isles, the Christian wake, an all-night service of prayers for the dead, may have been influenced by the Celtic pagan wake in which the corpse was placed under a table on which liquor was provided for the watchers. Over the years, both types of wakes degenerated into scenes of drunken debauchery.

Sources: Access Newspaper Archive; Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear; "Food and Drink in Elizabethan England," Daily Life through History; Google Books Ngram Viewer; “Lead poisoning,” MedlinePlus; Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed.); "English Ale and Beer: 16th Century," Daily Life through History; Oxford English Dictionary Online; Of Nurture (in Early English Meals and Manners, Project Gutenberg); Snopes.com; “Wake,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958); Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning.

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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