Popular fallacies – the coffin quartet


Popular fallacies – the coffin quartet

There is a vague folk memory that people used to fear being buried alive and that tombs were made with bells attached, so that the unfortunate occupant could ring for assistance if they found themselves the untimely occupant of a coffin. Stories about this are usually said to have originated in ‘Victorian times’. In fact, such fears were real and such coffins were designed and patented, although I can find no evidence at all that they were actually used. So far, so factual. The problem arises with the link between this funereal campanology and the language that is said to have arisen from it. Phrases that are said to be associated with the guarding against premature burial are these:

Saved by the bell
Dead ringer
Bats in the belfry
Graveyard shift

Needless to say, as this page is headed ‘Popular fallacies’, the links above are to essays that debunk these folk etymological myths.

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.