6 Widely Repeated Phrase Origins—Debunked!
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
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
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
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
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
Photo of ulcerative necrotizing gingivitis, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.