Dead ringer (orig. posted June 2002)

Posted by (Various posters--R. Berg) on August 10, 2002

Posted by Word Camel on June 14, 2002

In Reply to: Ring the changes posted by James Briggs on June 14, 2002

: : : : : : : : I just heard a preposterous story about the phrase "dead ringer" and found this list from my search engine. I am hoping you can help.
: : : : : : : : I was told that a few centuries ago, people were presumed dead and buried alive often enough that they began running a string from the coffin to a little bell hanging above the grave that the not-quite-dead person could ring. I just have a hard time swallowing that one.

: : : : : : : That story comes from a mostly fanciful essay about customs of various times in history that's traveled around the Internet for a few years. I don't think there's any evidence that "dead ringer" originated with live burials--and, in fact, its meaning has nothing to do with them. But live burials have occurred, and coffins with alarm bells have been patented; see or use link below.

: : : : : : ...which leaves the question, why ringer? "Dead" is I suppose used in its meaning of exact, and a ringer (or apparently in Australia and New Zealand, a ring) is a person or racehorse entered into a contest fraudulently, purporting to be of less ability that he/she/it actually possesses, usually in order to make financial gain by winning a betting coup. I still have no clue why "ringer" though? I wonder if it has anything to do with boxing rings.

: : : : : Aha. Is this wrongfully entered person or horse a lookalike of another runner, one that is supposed to be racing but is not?

: : : : Yes, sometimes (and probably originally), but not always - that'd tie in with "dead ringer", but what it has to do with any part of the verb to ring, I just don't know.

: : : This is probably the answer:
: : : RINGER. . . . 3. A quick changer of disguises: C. 20 cant. Cf. . . . "changes, ring the," [sense] 3.
: : : RING, v. To manipulate; change illicitly: from ca. 1785: perhaps orig. cant; certainly low slang. (See "ring the changes.")
: : : CHANGES, RING THE. To change a better article for a worse (coll.), esp. 2, bad money for good [good money for bad? -- rb] (orig. cant >, ca. 1830, low slang > by 1869, gen. slang >, ca. 1900, coll.): from ca. 1660, ca. 1780 respectively . . . In C. 20 it also, 3, = to adopt different disguises in rapid succession and with baffling effect. From bell-ringing; in sense 2, there is a pun on small change for larger coin [Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English].

: : That rings true.

: Here's what I've found.
: One possibility is that the word, which was once slang for 'counterfeit', was derived from the brass rings sold as gold at country fairs. 'Dead', in this instance is used in the sense of abrupt or exact, like in 'dead stop', or 'dead shot'.
: An alternative explanation comes from medieval times. In order to make sure that a buried person was actually dead, a string was sometimes tied to the deceased's wrist and attached to a bell above ground. If he was merely unconscious and woke up, he was able to ring the bell and draw attention to himself - he was a 'dead ringer'. Personally, I don't like this one much, as it has little to do with current usage. However, it could still be the basis, since it has been suggested that someone having a close resemblance to a deceased person was regarded as being the 'dead ringer'.

I thought the coffin bell was a Victorian obsession - or perhaps I've been reading too much Poe.