Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dead As A Ringer

There’s meme making the rounds that claims to provide etymologies for a number of common expressions, one of which is dead ringer. This specious missive would have us believe that the phrase originated in the sixteenth-century practice of burying the dead with a string tied to their wrists and attached to an outside bell. In the event someone had been mistakenly buried alive (which did occasionally happen), he or she could then pull the string and ring the bell summoning someone to open the grave. Such a person, though really alive, was facetiously known as a dead ringer (who was, of course, saved by the bell).
That’s a festive enough explanation, but it doesn’t appear to have a grain of truth in it. First of all, it has nothing to do with the meaning of dead ringer—which is “one who bears a strong resemblance to” someone else. 
A far more likely explanation stems from American horse-racing in the 1880s, when a horse fraudulently entered in a race under the name of a slower one became known as a ringer. This derived from an obsolete meaning of the verb ring, attested in 1812, “exchange or substitute.” 
A dead ringer is a perfect match for the original, with dead being used in the adverbial sense of “quite, precisely, or extremely,” as in dead drunk, dead heat, and dead center.
And saved by the bell is a nineteenth-century term derived from a boxer who was knocked down, but prevented from being counted out by the ringing of a bell ending the round.
Nonetheless, I’m going to ask for a string tied to my wrist when I’m buried.
There are no strings attached to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, although there are some folks who would like to see him strung up. Read this litany of opposites that have oozed through his pores, and you’ll understand why:
            Dead ringer, live wire,
            Sharpshooter, flat tire,

            High hopes, low fat,
            Black gold, white hat,           
            Small talk, big top,
            Good book, bad cop,
            Left Bank, right brain,
            Day bed, night train,
            Fast food, slowpoke,
            Clean sweep, dirty joke,
            Dry run, wet dream,
            Sour grapes, sweet cream,
            Bottom line, top dog,
            Half note, whole hog,
            Soft soap, hard sell,
            Smart phone, dumbbell,
            On target, off base,
            Sad sack, Funny Face

            Hot dog, cold feet
            Cold cash, hot seat

            Fat cat, slim chance,
            Plain Jane, fancy pants,
            Stalemate, fresh air,
            Shortcut, long hair           
            Round table, square meal,
            Odd lot, even keel,
            Full house, empty nest,
            Base pay, acid test,
            In-group, outhouse,
            Country mile, city mouse,

            Late show, early bird,
            First aid, last word! 

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