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Rings a bell

Take a message.

Dear Word Detective: At most recent biennial family reunion, a cousin asserted that “rings a bell” (triggers a memory) stems from practice of including mechanisms with coffins to prevent being buried alive and attributes such “fact” to tour of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Thanks in part to your tutelage, I’m among the “Nots.” I didn’t find phrase in your archives or other sources, but Bill Bryson (in recent book “At Home”) does note the practice (during 19th century) of adding bells, flags (and breathing tubes!) to coffins/graves, mentions Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and the fact that the term “taphephobia” was coined to describe this (popular?) fear. World Wide Words, in discussion of term “ringer” (in sense of “more adept than expected substitute”) also notes the burial practices, but explicitly denies any connection with phrase “dead ringer.” My guess would be that “rings a bell” is much older than 19th century, bells having been used to “call attention” probably almost from their inception. (There’s a bit in Macbeth about ringing bells in alarm.) I’d further surmise the evolution of the phrase includes the physical practice of slapping one’s (or other’s) head to stimulate cognitive processes which could easily be compared to a clapper striking a bell. (Oddly, though, to “have one’s bell rung” — from a stunning blow to the head — apparently dates only to 1960s.) In any case, I’m hoping your resources far exceed mine and that you can once again sort the facts from the fictions. — Stephen C. Hess.

My, what a long question you have. Yet you managed to omit my favorite response when asked for my name: “Does the name ‘Quasimodo’ ring a bell?” Yes, I slay myself, and no, I’m not planning to grow up anytime soon.

To begin at the beginning, your choosing to be counted a “Not” regarding that “Believe It Or Not” story is richly justified. I loved Ripley’s illustrated newspaper feature as a child, but I suspect that at least 80% of the “facts” we were asked to believe were nonsense. It is true, as Bill Bryson says, that there was widespread fear in the 19th century of being buried alive, and many bizarre gizmos to avoid that grim fate were invented. “Taphephobia” isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it must not have been a very successful invention, but it appears to be simply “phobia” (fear) preceded by the Greek word “taph,”meaning “grave or funeral” (also found in “epitaph,” literally “above the grave”).

Nineteenth century “taphephobia” is understandable, given the primitive state of medicine at the time (“Hey, he looks dead. Start digging.”). But the popular belief that such phrases as “dead ringer,” “saved by the bell” and “graveyard shift” (supposedly referring to people hired to sit and wait for the bell to ring) all refer to the fear of being buried alive is simply preposterous. I don’t have the space to debunk the sillier stories here, but explanations of all three phrases can be found by using the search box at

I suppose the addition of “rings a bell” to that roster of flapdoodle was inevitable, but, as usual, there is no evidence for that theory. Mental bells have been figuratively ringing for people for centuries in a variety of senses, though many of them are remarkably recent coinages. “To ring the bell,” for instance, has meant “to be the best” since 1900, “to ring a person’s bell,” meaning to please someone (“Brasserie Cognac’s version of macaroni and cheese rings my bell,” 2008), first appeared in the 1970s, and “to ring one’s own bell,” meaning “to boast or brag,” dates to 1859. “To ring a bell” meaning “to awaken a memory or prompt recognition” is similarly recent, first showing up in print in 1933. The phrase simply likens the sudden moment of remembering or recognizing to a bell being rung. No graveyard or ungrateful dead needed. Your hunch about it referring to smacking one’s own head to stimulate cognition is a good one, but apparently unnecessary.


Stuff it with stuff.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “stop”? — AJ.

Well, there’s a small but interesting question. Deceptively simple, too. After all, we all use “stop” at least a few times every day, whether at home (“Please stop chewing the dog’s ear, Timmy”), at work (“I don’t know. He was doing my annual evaluation and he just stopped, like someone had poisoned his coffee”), or on the road (“That’s the third stop sign you’ve blown through, Ralph. Either put down the sandwich or hang up the phone”). Speaking of stop signs, I happen to know people who seriously maintain that stop signs and speed limits are nothing more than informational “suggestions” supplied by helpful government agencies, on a par with signs that say “Hidden Driveway” or “Troll Under Bridge.” Yet another reason to shop online.

But while “stop” is a simple little staple of everyday life, it’s also a very old word, and very old words, as we’ve seen, can be hiding some fairly weird stories.

“Stop” first appeared in Old English as “stoppian,” which has, so far, only been found in the written record in the form “forstoppian,” meaning “to stop or stifle,” usually referring to someone’s breath. Many European and Scandinavian languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, et al.) developed similar “stop” words, all of which probably came from the Late Latin “stuppare,” meaning “to stop up or stuff with tow or oakum.” This “stuppare,” in turn, came from the Classical Latin “stuppa,” which meant “tow or oakum,” which, for many of us, raises the question “What the heck are tow and oakum?”

Both “tow” and “oakum” are the coarser, shorter fibers of flax, hemp or jute, separated out from the longer, finer strands used in spinning cloth. Oakum in particular was also used to mean short fibers of hemp obtained by picking apart lengths of old rope, a tedious activity often assigned to convicts and inmates of workhouses (“He had heard of a work-house, in this city, into which refractory servants are committed, and put to hard labour; such as pounding hemp, grinding plaister of Paris, and picking old ropes into oakum,” 1804). The resulting bits were used to caulk ships (“Ships, Barks, Hoyes, Drumlers, Craires, Boats, all would sink, But for the Ocum caulk’d in euery chink,” Praise of Hemp, 1620), seal pipe fittings, and even as dressings for wounds (“Who should it be but Mr. Daniel, all muffled up … and his right eye stopped with Okum?” Samuel Pepys, Diary, 1666).

So the verb “to stop” originally meant to block or stop up an opening as if with a plug (a “stopper”) of oakum or tow, but quickly came to be used more generally for any situation where movement was impeded by an obstruction (“The enemy sunk the ship at the mouth of the harbour, which stopped up the channel,” 1790). “Stop” was also used to mean simply “fill a hole,” as in a tooth (“One had his teeth peculiarly stopped with gold,” 1896) or a plaster wall, and even to stanch a bleeding wound.

In the 14th century, “stop” began to be used in its modern sense of “to bring a person, animal, thing or process to a halt” by one means or another (not necessarily using a physical obstruction). This “stop” now included preventing a person from doing something via law or argument, or to put an end to a process, activity or course of events (“For God’s sake stop the grunting of those Pigs!” Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820).

“Stop” had also come into use as a noun back in the 16th century meaning “the act of halting or being halted; a cessation of action or progress,” as well as “something which restrains or impedes action,” a broad range which came to include “traffic stops,” the “stops”(graduated valves) of a pipe organ, and the “f-stops,” varying diaphragm settings, of a camera lens. “Stop” is also used, more in Britain than the US, to mean a point of punctuation, with “full stop” being, quite logically, what is in the US called “a period.”

Garden Leave

It’s where he grows his apprehension.

Dear Word Detective: Today a British colleague of mine mentioned that he was on “garden leave.” Huh? Wikipedia to the rescue, for the meaning. But where the heck did it come from? I understand that when a Brit says “garden,” he often means “yard,” but I still don’t get it.  — Steve Ford.

They’re doing it on purpose, you know. It’s been going on since just after the American Revolution. Frustrated at having lost to a bunch of hicks who couldn’t even muster proper uniforms, the British decided to embark on a stealth attack on their former colonists’ sanity by inventing and promulgating bizarre words and phrases. So today they call trucks “lorries,” the   trunk of a car “the boot,” dresses “frocks” and sweaters “jumpers,” stoves “cookers,” and private schools “public schools” (huh?). And you’re right about “garden.” Brits use it to mean “yard,” especially the back yard of a row house. It used to really throw me to read limey authors going on about the “little shed at the bottom of the garden” where they write. I always imagined an underground bunker with turnips, but it turns out they mean a hut at the far end of their back yard.

Interestingly, the use of “garden” to mean simply “yard” is nowhere to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, though I suppose their basic definition of “an enclosed piece of ground devoted to the cultivation of flowers, fruit, or vegetables” could be considered sufficiently vague as to cover it. There’s also a close family tie between “garden” and “yard.” “Garden” first popped up in English around 1300, borrowed from the Old Northern French “gardin,” which was based on the same Germanic root that gave us “yard.” “Garden” is often used in the plural to mean landscaped public grounds used for recreation, as in “botanical gardens” and “zoological gardens.”

“Garden” has, not surprisingly, produced a variety of idioms and phrases ranging from the literal (“garden rake,” etc.) to the intriguingly metaphorical. We speak of “leading someone up the garden path,” for instance, meaning “to entice, to mislead or deceive,” the reference being that of someone offering a pleasant walk in an ornamental garden while secretly harboring nefarious plans. “Garden” has become a slang synonym for “common or ordinary,” especially in the phrase “garden variety,” probably originally in reference to breeds of plant found in an ordinary garden as opposed to anything more exotic (“I have — to make use of a common or garden expression — been ‘rushed’ in this matter,” 1897). And “to cultivate [or “tend”] one’s own garden” has, since the 18th century, meant to concentrate on one’s own affairs (and mind one’s own business).

“Gardening leave” (or “garden leave”) is a fairly recent British term, first appearing in print in the mid-1980s (1990 for “garden leave”). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gardening leave” as a euphemism meaning “suspension from work on full pay for the duration of a notice period, typically to prevent an employee from having any further influence on the organization or from acting to benefit a competitor before leaving.” The “notice period” mentioned there is the time between tendering one’s resignation (or being fired) and when the action actually takes effect. Apparently Britain has laws governing how long this period must be (from one week to one week per year of employment if you’re being canned). “Garden leave” is the practice of removing the soon-to-be-ex-employee from work duties so he or she will not be able to transfer current business information to a new employer (or to actually sabotage the current employer for the benefit of one’s new gig). There’s really no specific US equivalent for the term “gardening leave,” but similar situations would probably fall under the umbrella euphemism “administrative leave.”

So, why “gardening” leave? No one actually believes the person is taking time off to garden, any more than American politicians quit to “spend more time with their families.” I think the term is probably a slightly sarcastic reference to the well-known British affection for maintaining a small garden, coupled with the sense of a garden being a place you can park someone (a child, perhaps) where they can putter around and while away the time without getting into trouble.