Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Expressions and Where They Really Came From: "Deadd Ringer"

Nope, not this.
The other day at a pizza restaurant our waiter, who said his name was "Awesome" and who kept feeding us trivia questions hit on a wrong answer I had heard before.  He told us the expression "dead ringer" came from a period when premature burials were creeping everyone out so they started putting bells on caskets.  I knew that could not be right if only because the expression "dead ringer" means a perfect imitation.  How would that follow from tinntinnabulating coffins?

It doesn't.  The actual origin of the term comes from another meaning of both "ringer" and "dead".

You will be familiar with the term "ringer" meaning someone who steps in to take another person's place, the implication always being that the replacement is a much better performer than the original.  Sometimes a ball team puts in a ringer to throw off the strategy and expectations of the opposite team.  This comes from horse racing originally.  A "ringer" was a horse that looked just like one with a poor record of performance and therefore higher odds against winning.  The "ringer" will be mistaken for the less able nag, so when it wins, being a better racer, the trickster will win big.

"Dead" also means more than just deceased.  It also means precise or exact.  Like "She hit it dead on."

So a "dead ringer" is someone or something that is absolutely identical to something else.  You say "The actor who played him was a dead ringer for Thomas Cranmer."

In general, if an expression's claimed origin does not reflect it's current meaning in some way, it's wrong.