Previous Columns / Posted 03-06-2000
Dear Word Detective: If I may be frank, I'd like to know the origins of the verb "to frank," that is, the thing you do to a letter to indicate postage paid. Is it permissible to substitute "to frank" for "to cancel" when referring to the act of stamping a stamp to indicate the post office where the letter was first received and make the stamp unusable? -- Stephen Hill, Urbana, IL.
Frankly, Stephen, that's a good question. Speaking of stamping stamps, the verb "to stamp" originally (back in the 12th century) meant "to crush into small pieces," which may explain the sorry state of some packages I received recently. The "imprint a design" sense of "stamp" didn't appear until the 16th century, and "postage stamp" showed up about 300 years later, which seems about par for the postal course.
Now that I've ensured myself an empty (or worse) mailbox for the coming year, on to "frank." The whole thing started with the Franks, a Germanic tribe that conquered much of Western Europe prior to 1000 A.D. Personally, if I were going to conquer big chunks of the world, I'd call myself "Victor," but "Frank" probably came from an old Germanic word meaning "spear."
In any case, one of the first offshoots of the tribal name "Franks" was the use of "frank" to mean "free." It's fairly certain that the rest of Europe didn't feel especially "free" with the Franks running around conquering everyone, but the Franks' logic was that only when you had submitted to their rule were you truly free.
"Frank" meaning "free" eventually spawned two related meanings, that of "honest or candid, unrestrained by manners or convention" appearing in the 16th century, and, in the 18th century, "to affix an official signature or symbol to a letter allowing its delivery without the payment of postage." This "free mail" franking privilege, originally reserved for royalty, is, incidentally, what allows members of the U.S. Congress to send their constituents those fascinating newsletters. The use of "frank" to mean "to cancel a stamp" is a later development, and while you certainly can use "frank" in this sense, there is no guarantee that your listeners will understand.
Dear Word Detective: Why are the heights of buildings measured in "stories"? I can't for the life of me find any connection between "story" and anything to do with measurement, architecture, or city planning anywhere. -- yoyoma1, via the internet.
That's because there is no clear logical connection between "story" meaning "tale" and "story" meaning "level of a building." But they are indeed related. There are just a few steps involved. And that's about as subtle as my jokes get, folks.
The word "story" itself, as well as its usual meaning of "a narrative of fictitious events," comes from the Greek "historia," which meant "an account of events." The same "historia," as you might suspect, also gave us the English word "history." Now, the difference between a "story" and a "history" is, or at least is supposed to be, the difference between truth and fiction. But interestingly enough, the original meaning of "story" in English was "factual narrative," and only after that "just the facts" sense was gradually taken over by the word "history" in the 17th century did "story" come to primarily mean a made-up or largely fictional creation. One place where the original "factual account" sense of "story" is still used is in phrases such as "newspaper stories," which, of course, strive to be fact, not fiction.
One of the many uses of the word "story" back in the 14th century was to mean a picture or painting, or a series of paintings, that illustrated a narrative. Such "stories" are still found in the form of stained glass windows depicting Biblical events in many churches. Most authorities believe that the use of "story" to mean "one level of a building" arose as an architectural term for the practice of placing rows of such "story pictures" or narrative sculptures across the facades of ancient buildings. Such constructions, known at first by the Latin name "historia," eventually came to be called "stories," and by the 14th century the term was being used to mean one whole level of the building itself.
Dear Word Detective: I read in an advertising newsletter that "tip" is supposed to be an acronym for "to insure promptness." First of all, I'm wary of anything claiming to be an acronym. Secondly, I believe that the correct phrase would be "to ensure promptness" unless one was taking out an insurance policy on promptness. Finally, it seems to me that a tip does not "ensure" promptness -- rather, it rewards promptness. Any thoughts? -- Steve Close, via the internet.
Well, first of all, I must say that I am shocked -- shocked, I say -- to learn that an advertising newsletter, a standard-bearer for an industry that prides itself on its devotion to truth and accuracy, would ever promulgate erroneous information. Whom, if not the nation's advertisers, can one trust? I fear that I may never regard deodorant commercials with the same innocent enthusiasm ever again.
You're absolutely right, of course, to be skeptical about the "acronymic" origins proposed for many words. As I've noted before, acronyms were very rare in English before World War II, so any term that can be shown to have existed before about 1940 is very unlikely to have started life as an acronym.
And you're also largely correct in drawing a distinction between "ensure," which generally means "make certain or guarantee" that something will happen, and "insure," which usually means to obtain or issue an insurance policy on something or someone. Personally, I also happen to enjoy the distinction between those two words. But I'm afraid that you and I are members of a vanishing minority, and that, at least in the U.S., "insure" is increasingly accepted in place of "ensure" in the "make certain" sense. Oh well. Can't argue with vox populi, I suppose.
Now, as to "tip," those bozos are not even close. "Tip" doesn't stand for anything. It probably comes from the lingo of thieves in the 1600's, where "to tip" meant to give or lend a small amount of money or goods. Back then, "tipping" also meant "touching lightly," as in tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention, or possibly "touching" them with a request for a small amount of money.
Dear Word Detective: I read somewhere that a "toast" or "to toast" comes from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of wassailing. Actual toast was thrown into the wassail bowl, and whoever got the toast in their drink would have good fortune the next year. From that beginning came the tradition to "toast" or "make a toast" to a group or some honored person. I am looking for proof that this is correct. -- Blanche Williams, via the internet.
Well, the best I can give you is proof that you are not far off. By the way, I see you have the same problem that I do. I am forever reading interesting things, mulling them over for a few moments, and then promptly forgetting where I read them. I live with the gnawing suspicion that if I could ever remember all the interesting little tidbits I've read over the years I'd have a far clearer idea of what's going on around here.
Although we usually associate the word "wassail" with the old English Christmas tradition of drinking spirits from the "wassail bowl," the ritual of "wassail" was actually a Danish import to England. "Ves heil" in Old Norse meant "be healthy," and was routinely offered as a salutation to one's drinking buddies, who would then reply "drinc hail," which meant "drink to good luck."
Now, as weird as it may sound to us, people back in 12th century England really did like to dip or dunk toast, often spiced, into their wine or ale to improve the flavor, rather as we add croutons to a salad today. Go figure. In any case, the tradition continued for hundreds of years.
At some point, it became common to offer salutations to an honored figure at a banquet, for instance, by noting in one's tribute that the mere presence of the illustrious person made the wine or ale taste better, better even than the best toast in one's drink could have made it taste. This bit of cornball flattery apparently became so common that, by about 1700, any sort of drinking salutation eventually came to be known as a "toast."
Dear Word Detective: What does the word "overwhelm" come from? Can you "underwhelm"? Can you "whelm"? -- Ken Rudkin, via the internet.
Of course I can whelm. In fact, I'll have you know that I was captain of the whelming team in high school. We were an inspiring sight back then, clad in our conical fur hats and water wings, a dry-cell battery clutched in each hand, shod in shiny roller skates. The lads and I still get together every few years to hoist a few buffalo wings and compare arrest records. Once a whelmer, I say, always a whelmer. I still have my water wings.
The gist of your question seems to be whether "whelm" is a real word in its own right, and the answer is yes, and a very old one at that. First recorded in English around 1300 A.D., "whelm" is probably rooted in the Old English word "hwelman," meaning "to overturn," "to cover" or "to capsize," and is closely related to the obsolete English word "whelve," which meant "to cover over or to hide." Although the word "whelm" is rarely used by itself today, it can describe events both prosaic (as in preserving food by "whelming" -- covering it -- with an overturned bowl) and catastrophic (as in a village being "whelmed" by a flash flood).
In the verb "overwhelm," the "over" intensifies the action of "whelm." When you are "overwhelmed," you are completely covered, turned over and rendered helpless by something. "Overwhelm" first appeared in English around 1300, but the more figurative sense of "drowning in work" or "overcome by circumstances" first arose in the 16th century.
The modern use of "overwhelmed" to mean "very impressed" led, in the mid-1950s, to the invention of its opposite, "underwhelmed," meaning "not impressed at all" or "not interested." "Underwhelm" is a perfectly respectable, and very useful, word. With so many people striving to overwhelm us with flashy folderol today, from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to fervent political crusades, being "underwhelmed" often seems the hallmark of sanity.
The ants are my friends, they're blowin' in the wind.
Dear Word Detective: My friend, a native Californian, and I, from the midwest, had yet another episode of "You Thought it was WHAT?" She referred to her fashionable brother, in hushed tones so her five-year old would not hear, as a "clothes whore." When I told her the phrase was "clothes horse," she dismissed it as another shortcoming of my Hoosier roots. Because her version does make some sense and I could not support mine, she has temporarily won the argument. Can you help? -- Kelly Knoll, via the internet.
Excellent! I've heard a lot of mondegreens, but your sister's is definitely a keeper. The best part is that, as you note, "clothes whore" actually makes a lot of sense.
Mondegreens, incidentally, are humorous mishearings of popular phrases and song lyrics, so-named by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. She had heard one stanza of the Scottish ballad ''The Bonny Earl of Murray" as "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen," and only much later learned that the last line was actually "And laid him on the green." No Lady Mondegreen.
Mondegreens range from the mildly amusing to the truly staggering. Mondegreen maven Jon Carroll, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle, recounts a mishearing of the tedious anthem from "Evita" as "Don't cry for me, Marge and Tina," and another reader's puzzlement over Rod Stewart's insistence that "Every picture tells a story doughnut." My personal favorite concerns a woman who said that her parents' wealth did them no good at all because they just sat around their backyard deck and "drank themselves to Bolivia." Sounds like fun.
Meanwhile, back at your friend's brother, the phrase is definitely "clothes horse." In the early 19th century, "clothes horses" were wooden racks used for drying or airing out clothes. The jocular use of "clothes horse" to describe a person who seems to "live to display clothes" was a natural extension of the phrase, and first appeared around 1850.
Dear Word Detective: In a conversation yesterday, an impassioned History teacher informed me that she believed the word "history" was derived from "his story," which explained the obvious male perspective found in historical accounts. I'd be interested to know the true derivation of the word. Or am I doubting this illustrious teacher unjustly? -- Alan Dickson, Hong Kong.
Impassioned, yes, but also seriously whacked. I could understand this old chestnut being repeated by a real estate agent, for instance, or a stockbroker, to pick two perfectly nice but not especially academic professions. But to hear this nonsense from the lips of a History teacher is staggering. Among other things, it bespeaks a bizarre, conspiratorial notion of how language (not to mention history itself) works. Please ask your teacher who is supposed to have decided to call it "his story," and why, if they were so clever, they did not call it "our story," which would certainly have covered their tracks a bit better. I thought the Illuminati were smarter than that.
OK, end of rant, and the foregoing should not be construed as minimizing in any way the very real distortion of written history by sexism over the millennia.
The root of "history" is the Greek "historia" (meaning "narrative"), which itself came from the Greek "historein," meaning "to inquire." These Greek roots do not contain and have absolutely nothing to do with the English personal pronoun "his," which comes from the Proto-Germanic root "hisa." The Greeks who came up with "historia" had literally never heard the word "his" or anything like it.
When "history" first appeared in English around 1390 it meant any account of events, not necessarily a truthful story. In fact, until the 17th century, both "history" and "story" (simply a clipping of "history") were used to mean both fictional and factual narratives. Today, of course, we usually use "history" to denote fact and "story" to mean fiction, although devotees of postmodernism and Fox TV executives would probably argue that the distinction is artificial.
Dear Word Detective: It seems to me that if a thing can be inscrutable, it should also be scrutable. How does one "scrute"? Is it related to "scrutinize"? Also, where do they keep the "gruntled" postal workers? -- Dave Birnie, via the internet.
Oh, a wise guy, huh? We've seen your kind before around here. Marching in all Mister Rational and trying to tidy up our language. Well, forget it, pal. We like English to be full of stacks of old newspapers and cat food cans, piles of moldering books and dust bunnies the size of dachshunds. No, wait, that's my office. But English is a mess too, so you might as well get used to it.
One of the messiest parts of English is the ambiguity of some of its prefixes -- those funny little bits such as "in" and "dis" that we tack onto the front of our words. In most cases, both "in" and "dis" mean "not," as in "invalid" and "dishonorable." But not always.
Something that is "inscrutable" is mysterious, unfathomable, beyond comprehension. So, assuming that "in" means "not," we figure that there must be a "scrutable," too. And, in this case, we're right. There is a real word "scrutable," meaning "able to be understood," although it is very rarely used. Both "scrutable" and "inscrutable" evolved from the Latin verb "scrutare," meaning "to search or examine," which was also the source of "scrutiny" and "scrutinize."
"Disgruntled," meaning "dissatisfied or aggravated," is a different case. "Dis" here is used as an intensifier, meaning "utterly or exceedingly." There once was such a word as "gruntle" by itself, based on "grunt" and used to describe the sound a pig makes, a cross between a snort and a grunt. Grunting in humans is generally considered indicative of a bad mood, and in the 16th century, a person perpetually in foul temper was described as "gruntling" or "gruntled." The intensified form "disgruntled" eventually superseded "gruntled," and today someone who is "disgruntled" is "extremely gruntled" and should be given a wide berth.
Wasn't he one of The Seven Dwarves?
Dear Word Detective: I am interested in pinning down, once and for all, the origin of the word "sleazy." I am given to understand that it is a derisive reference to Silesia, which is a region in present-day Poland. If so, it ought to be consigned to oblivion for the same reason one never reads of being "gypped" or "jewed" anymore in civilized discourse. Can you enlighten? -- Donald.M.Kreis, via the internet.
The short answer to your question is that "sleazy," meaning "depraved, squalid or worthless" is quite possibly (but not certainly) related to the region of Silesia.
Back in the 17th century, cloth was taken very seriously (and was a very important element in global trade), far more so than today in our age of synthetics and mass-production. The same sort of esteem some of us (inexplicably) grant today to designers such as Tommy Hilfiger was, back then, assigned to the varieties of cloth produced by various countries. One of the finest fabrics, for instance, was known as "Holland cloth," from its origin in the Netherlands. There was also something known as "Silesia cloth," manufactured in Silesia, which was popularly known as "sleazy cloth."
Now here's where it gets a little complicated. At some point around 1670, "sleazy" began to be used to mean "cheap or flimsy," especially in relation to cloth. We might reasonably suspect that this "sleazy" is related to Silesian "sleazy cloth," but there is no solid linguistic proof of that. In any case, "sleazy" went on to mean "cheap or shoddy" in general, and by about 1941 had acquired its modern meaning of "squalid, worthless or sordid."
My own feeling is that even if our modern "sleazy" did originally refer to Silesia, the reference was to manufactured goods, not (as in the case of both "Jew" and "gyp") to supposed national characteristics. "Sleazy," as far as I can tell, has never been applied as a personal insult to natives of Silesia. And I think that any insult to the Silesian cloth industry buried in "sleazy" has now been so muddled by time that the word should remain in our vocabulary.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "Svengali" to describe an older man who manipulates and influences a younger woman? -- Wendy, via the internet.
Aha, one of those literary questions. Well at least it's not about Charles Dickens. Every time someone asks me about a Dickensian literary allusion, it is invariably to one of the Dickens novels I was assigned but neglected to actually read in school. I have lately begun to suspect that my ninth grade English teacher is out there somewhere torturing me.
In the case of "Svengali," however, the novel was by George du Maurier. It was called "Trilby," and it was an enormous hit when it was published back in 1894. "Trilby" is the story of one Trilby O'Ferrall, a beautiful young woman working as an artists' model in Paris, an occupation which, in those days, was about as risque as you could get. It was also a pretty risky line of work, because in novels like "Trilby" artists' models almost always came to a bad end.
The world is Trilby's oyster for a while. All the nice young artists are in love with her (or at least with her feet, which were supposedly to die for), and if she had a lick of sense she'd marry one of them and starve in a garret the way she's supposed to. Instead, she lets herself fall under the influence of the mysterious and sinister Svengali, a German-Polish musician and hypnotist who promises to make her a famous singer. Lo and behold, Svengali delivers on his promise and Trilby becomes famous, but at the cost of losing her will and soul to Svengali. When he dies, she loses her voice, her career founders, and she eventually dies too. Let that be a lesson to all you artists' models out there.
"Trilby" was a genuine blockbuster in its day, so it's not surprising that the character of Svengali made quite an impression on the public. "Svengali" almost immediately became an eponym (a word drawn from a proper name) for a manipulative, usually sinister, usually older man.
Dear Word Detective: I do medical transcription and all of a sudden our docs are using the phrase "by and large." I called the library and was told this phrase had a nautical origin. Could you elaborate? I know there's been a resurgence of the Village People but are the docs wishing they were "In the Navy" by reviving this phrase? -- Stacy Brown, via the internet.
"By and large" is a slightly tricky phrase to explain. In its current popular usage, "by and large" is vagueness personified, and is used to mean "more or less" or "generally speaking" or "on the whole." Obviously I'm not privy to exactly how your doctors use the phrase, but I imagine it crops up in sentences such as "By and large, we have found our patients pay their bills more promptly when we explain that if they don't we will keep their clothes and make them ride the bus home wearing that silly paper gown."
In its original nautical usage, however, "by and large" had a fairly precise meaning. One of the trickiest courses to sail is almost directly into the wind, a maneuver called "close hauling" because the sails are angled tight against the wind. Close hauling requires an experienced sailor at the helm because of the danger of being "taken aback," or having the sails blown back against the ship's masts, halting the ship's progress. Sailing close hauled into the wind is also called sailing "close and by," the "by" meaning "in the direction of" in this context.
If the sailor at the helm were not an experienced salt, the Captain might prudently forego sailing "close and by" and instead order a less demanding course of "by and large." This means to sail in the general direction of the wind, but not so close as to run the risk of being taken aback. "By and large" first appeared in naval terminology in 1669, but was so obviously a useful metaphor that landlubbers were using it to mean "in general" by about 1833.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "chock full," meaning "very full"? -- Bob Riker, via the internet.
Good question, but first I must thank you for bringing to mind (my mind, anyway) the old Chock Full O' Nuts coffee jingle. Feel free to sing along: "Chock Full O' Nuts is the heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee," and so on, rising to a crescendo with the announcement that "Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy." This has always puzzled me. What's the point of becoming a millionaire if you can't get better coffee than Joe Schmoe drinks? Makes me glad I didn't bother getting rich.
I also could never figure out what "nuts" Chock Full O' was supposed to be full of, but the phrase "chock full" has meant "completely full, with no room to spare" since it first appeared in English (as "chokkefulle") around 1400 A.D. The second part of the word, "full," is certainly no mystery, but there are a variety of theories as to where "chock" came from and what it might mean.
One possibility is that the "chock" in "chock full" meant in the beginning what it still means today -- a chunk or block of wood, from the Old Northern French word "chuque," meaning "log." This theory would have "chock full" meaning essentially "stuffed full of blocks of wood," which is pretty weird but not absolutely impossible.
It's also possible, and slightly less weird, that the "chock" is related to "cheek," and that the original sense of "chock full" was "to be full up to the cheeks," a metaphorical image we still use today in phrases such as "up to the eyeballs" and "up to your neck in trouble." Or it might have meant that your cheeks were already stuffed full and you couldn't take another bite.
Yet another possibility is that "chock" is related to "choke," making "chock full" equivalent to "choke full," or "full to the point of choking."
Evidence for any of these theories -- cheeks, choking or chunks of wood -- is very sparse, so the "chock" mystery may never be definitively solved. And a better answer than that, I'm afraid, even Bill Gates' money can't buy.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, a friend said that she parked her car on the "devil strip" and explained that this was the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Can you tell me what the origin of this term is? (She's from Ohio) -- Wendy Klepfer, via the internet.
Oh, well, there's your answer. People in (and from) Ohio are just plain weird. (I'm allowed to say that because I happen to live in Ohio at the moment.) Ohio boggles the mind. Our local county sheriff just got himself indicted by a grand jury on 323 felony charges, but steadfastly refuses to stop running for re-election. And there's a good chance that he'll win. I think there's something in the water around here.
What people call that strip between the street and the sidewalk turns out to depend on where they live. When I was growing up in Connecticut, we called it the "shoulder," but other terms heard around the U.S. include "tree bank" (common in Massachusetts), " berm," "right of way," "green strip" and the logical, if unglamorous, "dog walking area."
According to The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which pays close attention to such local lingo, "devil strip" is heard almost exclusively in Northeastern Ohio, up around Akron. DARE suggests that the term may arise from the strip's legal status as a sort of "no man's land" between public and private property.
"Devil" occurs in many such folk terms, applied to plants, animals, places and things, usually those considered dangerous or unattractive, and the sense of "devil" when found in place names is often "barren, unproductive and unused." DARE notes a similar term "devil's lane," first appearing around 1872, meaning the unusable strip of land between two parallel fences, often the result of neighbors being unable to agree on a common fence. And another term, "devil's footstep," dates back to around 1860 and means "a spot of barren ground." So it's not surprising that a strip of land next to the street, unusable by anyone, would be christened the "devil strip." In fact, for Ohio, it's downright logical.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "ishkibibbel" come from? (I'm spelling it phonetically.) I'm trying to determine if it is just a nonsense word or if it has a standard meaning. -- Cynthia Batman, via the internet.
A little of both, actually. Your phonetic attempt, by the way, is pretty close to the mark. The usual spelling is "Ish kabibble."
There are several layers to the story of "Ish Kabibble," so let's start at the top. "Ish kabibble" is slang, possibly German or Yiddish slang, meaning "I don't care" or "Who cares?"
Ish Kabibble was also the stage name of Merwyn Bogue (1907-94), a cornet player in Big Band leader Kay Kyser's orchestra. Kay Kyser was the host of the enormously popular 1930s radio program Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, and Bogue, portraying the slightly addled Ish Kabibble, served as comic relief and a sort of sidekick to Kyser. Incidentally, one of the vocalists who worked with Kay Kyser in the late 1940s was Merv Griffin.
The inspiration for Bogue's character's name was quite possibly a humorous popular song by Sam Lewis published in 1913 entitled "Isch Gabibble" or "I Should Worry," the lyrics of which make the meaning of "Isch Gabibble" pretty clear: "I never care or worry, Isch Gabibble, Isch Gabibble, I never tear or hurry, Isch Gabibble, Isch Gabibble, ... When I owe people money, Isch Gabibble, Isch Gabibble, If they befriend or lend me that's their lookout, They shouldn't yell or shout, I should worry if they steal my wife, And let a pimple grow on my young life, Isch Gabibble , I should worry? No! Not me!"
Another incarnation of at least the "kabibble" element of "Ish kabibble" was in a popular comic strip, "Abie the Agent" by Harry Hershfield, which debuted in 1914 and chronicled the adventures of a character named Abie Kabibble.
It's probable that both the song and the comic strip were playing off "Ish kabibble," already popular slang for "Who cares?" in the early 1900s. But as to where the words "Ish kabibble" themselves originally came from, that, unfortunately, remains a mystery, although Yiddish slang seems the most likely source.
Dear Word Detective: I am curious about the origin of the word "marmalade." Does it have anything to do with oranges? -- Bill, via the internet.
Not really. Although when we think of marmalade today we're almost always thinking of orange marmalade, it was originally made primarily from quinces, which are a sour, hard yellow fruit somewhat similar to an orange, but different, and related to the pear. (A botanist I'm not, and I don't even like oranges, so I'm fairly certain I wouldn't care for a quince, should someone out there be planning to send me one. So please don't.)
One of the things that makes "marmalade" an interesting word (possibly the only thing, actually) is the charming story often told about its origin.
The story begins during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (royalty tends to loom large in charming word origin stories, by the way). When Queen Mary wasn't feeling well, the story goes, she would refuse all sustenance except a concoction made from boiled oranges, quince and other fruit. The royal servants, estimably cultured themselves, would deliver the Queen's order to the kitchen in French, explaining that "Marie" was feeling "malade," or ill. Put "Marie" and "malade" together, the story goes, and you have the origins of the name for what remains one of our most popular jams: "marmalade."
It's a nice story, so it's really a shame that not a word of it is true. "Marmalade" takes its name from the Portugese word "marmelada," meaning "quince jam." The English were, in fact, eating marmalade, and calling it that, as early as 1524, eighteen years before Mary, Queen of Scots, was even born.
Yet more evidence that the internet is evil.
Dear Word Detective: Where do we get the phrase "dead-ringer"? I have heard the story about frequent burials of those who weren't really dead yet, leading to the introduction of a string linked to a bell above ground, which would ring if the dearly-departed revived and began struggling in his coffin. I find it somewhat hard to accept that a town would hire some fellow to sit in a graveyard and listen for ringing bells. -- LVA, via the internet.
I'm glad you didn't believe it, because it ain't true. But wait, there's more. The story you heard has been turning up in my mailbox lately with alarming regularity, forwarded as part of a long essay currently making the rounds of the internet. Compiled by someone with an active imagination but no real brains, this essay (usually titled "Life in the 1500s") purports to explain the origins of a dozen or so common phrases, from "raining cats and dogs" to "dead ringer," by tracing them to daily life in Shakespeare's day.
Unfortunately, I have neither the space nor the energy to debunk all of the absurd claims made in this silly essay, but the bottom line is that it is 100 percent unmitigated rubbish. Even the few parts that are not overtly insane are still wrong.
The "ringer" in "dead ringer" comes from the phrase "ring the changes," which literally means to ring all the bells in a bell-tower in varying sequences, and metaphorically means to repeat something in a variety of ways. As slang, "ring the changes" means to substitute a bad or false thing for a good thing, and it's that "phony" meaning that gave us "dead ringer."
First found in about 1890, "ringer" was originally horse-racing slang for a horse with a proven track record that was surreptitiously substituted for a less qualified, untested horse. "Ringer" is now used as slang for anything that has been tampered with or unfairly altered. The "dead" in "dead ringer" is simply an intensifier, meaning "absolutely," and since a "ringer" must resemble the thing it replaces, "dead ringer" has come to mean something indistinguishable from another thing or person.
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