Why a dead ringer’s a dead ringer!

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I love finding out the origin of phrases and ‘dead ringer’ is a pretty spectacular one, to say the least.

A ‘dead ringer’ is somebody who looks very much like someone else and the expression stems back to Medieval Ages. Back in the day medical science wasn’t what it is now and when someone seemed to have stopped breathing, medics weren’t terribly sure that they were actually dead. Ridiculous as this may sound, the poor sickly person was buried anyway, rather than clutter up the place! To be fair, it’s thought that comas weren’t understood at that time and that could be one of the reasons that people were thought to be lifeless.

Often bodies were exhumed and corpses were found with their fingers literally worn down to the bone and the insides of coffin lids scratched silly by the poor people, who had regained consciousness, trying to escape. So nightmarish was this vision that the gentry began to bury their loved ones with a string attached to their wrist, connected to a bell – and should the medics have the diagnosed death wrongly, the prematurely buried body could ring for attention.

It sounds like a bit of a pantomime but it actually worked and many bodies were dug up and returned to where they belonged (above ground).

As the freshly-exhumed went about their normal life, though, they shocked acquaintances who thought they were dead. Friends would wonder: ‘That looks like Fred Smith – he was buried last month’ and then they’d figure ‘Oh, he must be a dead ringer.’ And, of course, they would have been right!

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