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Some sources say that being "saved the bell" was originally a reference to people prematurely declared dead. Or that "dead ringers" were once people prematurely declared dead. Or that wakes were designed to ... you know what? Let's just say there are a lot of erroneous stories related to people being prematurely declared dead.

In this episode of The List Show, Erin debunks popular (but incorrect) origin stories for popular expressions, from "bring home the bacon" to "raining cats and dogs."

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1. “Saved by the bell'' is a fun expression for lucky high schoolers. It’s also a classic sitcom and, according to legend, a reference to people being mistakenly buried alive. After stories came out about coffins with scratch marks on the inside, undertakers supposedly came up with the idea to use life-saving signaling systems. Essentially, a string would be tied to the possibly-deceased’s wrist; that string led up through the ground to a bell. So, if the corpse turned out to be not so dead after all and started moving around, the bell would ring, and the poor soul could be saved. Saved by the bell. It’s a fun, albeit morbid, etymological origin—but it turns out, most of that story is probably untrue. 

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of, and this is the List Show. Today, I’ll be debunking the origins of several more common phrases (including two other coffin-related expressions, oddly enough). Let’s get started. 


While the fear of being buried alive was indeed a real thing——Hans Christian Andersen, George Washington, and Auguste Renoire just a few of the famous people who were said to have suffered from so-called taphephobia—there’s not really any proof that these fears were based on real incidents. In the late 1890s, in fact, a medical journal surveyed a group of doctors and experts, and according to their report, “None of them had ever known or heard of a duly authenticated case of burial alive, and considered the accounts of such occurrences totally unworthy of credence or even serious attention.” If people weren’t actually being buried alive, let alone saved by any bells, it’s hard to see how this lurid origin story could be based in fact. And, to put the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, the phrase didn’t appear in print until the late 19th century, a good 100 years after things like safety coffins began popping up. This particular usage wasn’t even in reference to a premature burial.

It was used in the context of boxing. To be saved by the bell is simply a reference to the end-of-round bell that could save a boxer from getting the pulp beaten out of him. Slightly less morbid. Slightly. 

2. While we still have images of people waking up in buried coffins in our heads, let’s talk about the phrase “dead ringer.” Today, we use it to refer to “A person or thing that looks very like another; a double,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. But many believe it, like “saved by the bell,” originated in reference to a not-quite-dead person ringing a bell from inside a coffin.

Once again, cute story, but doesn’t pass fact check. The word “ringer” is used to refer to a lookalike—person or animal—that is brought into a competition to secure a victory. Iit was derived from the phrase “to ring the changes,” an old slang term that meant “to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item.” Combine ringer with the adjective dead, meaning “exact,” and you get dead ringer. Not a dead person ringing. And those aren’t the only two phrases wrongly attributed to dubious tales of burials gone wrong. 

3. There’s also the graveyard shift. Some claim that this phrase comes from the name given to graveyard workers who had to work night shifts in order to potentially rescue someone who was buried alive. I mean, it makes sense—what good is a grave-side alarm if there’s no one around to hear it? Unfortunately for taphophiles, this expression has a few likely sources, but none of them involve a graveyard. “Graveyard shift” dates back to the late 19th century, and when it appeared, it was in reference to things like coal mines and gambling houses: “The after midnight early morning run is called the graveyard shift,” one 1888 newspaper article about a gambling house noted.

A 1906 newspaper article mentioned that miners worked a graveyard shift lasting from 11 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sailors, meanwhile, did something called a “graveyard watch” from midnight to 4 a.m. while the rest of the crew was asleep. Some say that it was known as the graveyard watch because of how quiet the ship was during that time. Spooky! Others, however, claimed it got the name because disasters often occurred during those hours. Arguably spookier! So, basically, it seems like any number of workers doing their jobs during the dead of night is the source of this expression—not some poor soul sitting in a literal graveyard waiting for a bell to ring. 

4. And while we’re somehow still on the subject of dead bodies being not so dead, let’s talk about the origin of the word “wake.” As in, a funeral wake. Here’s the fun story that often gets told: Just a few centuries ago, people used to drink out of lead cups. Not a great start. As the stories go, putting booze in these vessels created a lead-laced punch so potent that it would cause people to collapse on the way home and not wake up for days. Think of the hangover. Passersby would presume these poor souls were dead and deliver the body to their family’s home to prepare for the funeral. The body would sit in a room in the house for a few days as the family hung around, eating and drinking, hoping their loved one would “wake” back to life from their lead-induced coma. But there are a few holes in this story.

Lead poisoning is definitely not good, but it doesn’t happen all at once, as this story would have you believe. Instead, it occurs over time—so drinking whiskey from a lead cup all night is not going to lead to a corpse-like knockout. That’s probably just alcohol poisoning. In reality, the word wake has origins going back several centuries. It’s related to the Old Norse word vaka, which means “vigil,” and the Old High German wahta, which means “watch.” According to the OED, by the 15th century, wake began to be used in reference to the watching of the body of a loved one, as well as “the drinking, feasting, and other observances incidental to this.” But the lead cup story? Doesn’t hold water. Or booze. 

5. OK, let’s step away from the graveyards and dead bodies and talk about something a little less morbid. Bread! When we talk about the “upper crust” these days, we’re usually referring to the creme de la creme of society—the aristocracy. Celebrities. Rich people. Some origin stories for the phrase suggest that it comes from the desirable qualities of the top part of a literal loaf of bread. Back in the old days, bread was supposedly split amongst people based on their status. Workers would get the bottom, the burnt part. The family would get the middle chunk of bread. And guests would get the top—the upper crust. Why the top crust of the bread was considered the best is unclear—I am personally a fan of the middle, but hey.

There’s only one reference to a custom kind of like this, and that’s in a 1460 book. The passage, summarized in English, reads, in part, “Take a loaf of light bread, pare the edges, cut the upper crust for your lord.” That’s the only reference to literal bread crust used in relation to a member of the upper class for hundreds of years. In the mid-16th century the phrase was also used to refer to the outermost layer of the Earth’s surface. “Upper crust” in reference to the upper class didn’t become commonplace until the 19th century.

Around the same time, delightfully, it was used as slang for a person’s head or their hat. It seems more likely that the upper crust was connected to upper classes simply because it’s the top, rather than a reference to any super-specific bread-sharing practice. 

6. “Bring home the bacon.” The story goes that pork products used to be pretty difficult to get—so, if you were able to buy some, you would often hang it in your home for guests to see. How impressive! You brought home the bacon! Well, that story is most likely pig poo. Some, instead, trace the origin of bring home the bacon to the tradition of catching a greased swine at a county fair and then getting to take it home, while others believe it comes from a custom referenced in Chaucer in which married couples made another vow: If, a year and a day after saying “I do,” they could promise they didn’t regret their marriage, they were given some pork as a reward.

But these are unlikely, too. The phrase bring home the bacon actually didn’t appear in writing until 1906. The mother of a boxer was quoted in a newspaper telling her son to “bring home the bacon.” It became popular among sportswriters after that, and likely spread from there. 

7. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” is a very… specific piece of advice, but it has an understandable meaning. It’s a warning to not get rid of something valuable when discarding something unwanted. The story goes that, in the 16th century, the order in which a family took a bath followed a certain hierarchy. The man of the house would get into the big tub full of clean, hot water. Next came any other sons or men in the house. Then, the women would bathe, followed by the children, and, bringing up the rear, the babies. By that point, as you might imagine, the water was no longer nice and clean. It was so nasty, in fact, that it was completely opaque with dirt—so murky that a baby, for example, could get lost in it. So, mothers would be told a warning: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. 

But this story is almost surely not true. For one, a big bath of hot water in the 16th century was not a common occurrence, thanks to the fact that people had to lug buckets of water up from the river first. In fact, most baths were something more like a sponge bath. The English version of the expression, which dates to the 1800s, came from a German proverb, that translates into English as “to empty out the child with the bath.” That first appeared in a satirical work from the 16th century. So it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, and had nothing to do with babies actually being thrown out with the bath. As for why it became popular? Well, if you had a choice of “don’t throw away the good with the bad” or “don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater,” which would you choose? The meaning is the same, but the former conjures up a slightly less vivid imagery. 

8. You hear that? It’s raining cats and dogs out there. Have you ever thought about how odd that phrase is? Well, there’s an interesting tall tale people like to throw around about it, and it goes like this: Once upon a time, people’s roofs consisted of thick straw on top of wood, and many animals lived up there because it was warm. Mice. Rats. Bugs. Cats. Dogs. An entire zoo living up there. And as the story goes, when it got really rainy, the animals would slip off the thatch and fall from the roof. Now, it’s raining cats and dogs. Cute, and… sad. But there isn’t much evidence for this origin story. While some animals may well have taken shelter in thatched roofs, it’s not really clear how rain would cause them to come flying down from there. A less complicated theory from etymologists attributes the phrase to the age-old war between the two animals. Doing anything like cats and dogs means something of high intensity. Like, they’re going at it like cats and dogs. So, it wouldn't be a huge leap to describe heavy rain as “cats and dogs.” Some other, more speculative theories are out there as well. One theory is that the phrase comes from the French word for waterfall, catadoupe.

But some, like etymologist Gary Martin, aren’t convinced that that theory is legit. Another potential origin might be found in a 1592 text that reads, “In steed of thunderboltes, shooteth nothing but dogboltes, or catboltes.” What are dogboltes and catboltes, you ask? They’re heavy metal bolts used for securing gates and holding together pieces of wood.

So, a heavy storm might have been equated to the sound or feeling of being pelted by heavy metal tools. But again, not all etymologists are convinced that’s where it’s raining cats and dogs comes from. Maybe it’s just kind of fun to describe a really intense storm with this really evocative phrase.

Thanks for watching The List Show. If you know of an interesting true origin for a popular expression, drop it in the comments below. We’ll see you next time!