Dead Ringer

Who hasn’t heard the line, “You’re a dead ringer for….?”  (Fill in the blank–My college roommate, my ex, that weird bag lady on 7th and D St….)  The line has more meaning than a cheesy pick-up line or a not-too-creative insult.  Technically speaking, the term “dead ringer” is a person or object that exactly resembles another.  In centuries past, the word “ringer” was used in the horse-breeding arena when one horse was substituted for another to defraud race aficionados; “a horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree.” Hmm…I’ve met some people who could fit that category…

The adjective dead was added to ringer, to stress the exact likeness of one horse to another.  “Dead” was uses to emphasize precision.  So “dead set” actually means “very” or “extremely” intent on something; “dead tired,” as opposed to meaning tired enough to be mistaken for dead, instead simply implies the extent to which ones bones are weary.

A common belief is that “dead ringer” came from pre-embalming days when bells were attached to buried bodies in case they were not quite dead and woke up after the burial.  The common assumption was that dead bodies were buried post haste in times of plague or something similar.  When the person would stir, the rope tied to the person in some fashion would ring and the graveyard attendant could dig them up, hopefully before they ran out of air and really did become dead.  If this situation occurred, people seeing a person they thought had died would be said to see a “dead ringer.”  While this latter definition is definitely more fun, especially for a paranormal enthusiast like me, I gotta say it doesn’t have a true feel to it.  Many online sites “debunk” this latter definition, which could be right or could be off into left field.  But reference books (like a perfectionist like me uses for questions I can’t get a definitive answer to anywhere else) cite the horse substitute hoax as the origin.

I wonder what other ideas exist for the origin of this phrase?  A-ha!  An album by Meatloaf….



  1. “Grave yard” shift or ‘watch” — the midnight, late, etc shift – got it’s name from those beliefs – when one was assigned to ‘watch the grave yard’ at night for any of the buried folk who stirred and ‘rang their bells’. . . .

  2. Yup, that’s what the same literature said. However, if “dead ringer” began because of horse imposters and NOT bells attached to prematurely-buried bodies, the graveyard shift must have either begun somewhere else or come about independently of the “dead ringer” phrase. Hmm…

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