Graveyard Shift (Origin)

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Graveyard Shift"?

The term "graveyard shift" means a work stint between midnight and 8 am.

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Graveyard Shift (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • It's hard to stay alert during the graveyard shift.
  • I'm on the graveyard shift tonight, dear. Can you take the kids to school in the morning?
  • My chess improved a lot when I started working the graveyard shift.
  • I have volunteered to work the graveyard shift for a few months so I can make a start on my book.
The term "graveyard shift" (sometimes called the "graveyard watch," especially in a maritime setting) originates from America in the late 1800s. It refers to the early hours of the morning when all is quiet, to the extent that it seems eery or ghostly, like a graveyard.

Competing Theory

The "graveyard watch" was a term used by sailors. It referred to the early hours of the morning, when most accidents occurred due to tiredness. Accidents cause deaths, and this explains the association with graveyards. This theory is supported by the 1927 publication "A Glossary of Sea Terms":
  • "Graveyard watch, the middle watch or 12 to 4 a.m., because of the number of disasters that occur at this time."

Competing Theory

The term "graveyard shift" originates from the 18th century when people were so fearful of being buried alive they would be buried with a string attached to a bell on the surface. After a burial, a person would be nominated to do the "graveyard shift" (literally sit in the graveyard) to check that the buried person didn't wake up and start ringing the bell.

Supporters of this theory highlight that the terms saved by the bell and dead ringer provide evidence of the need for a person to do the graveyard shift. Detractors of the theory highlight that "saved by the bell" originates from boxing and that "dead ringer" originates from horse racing, and they are also quick to point out that there is not one single record of a person being saved by ringing the surface bell from their grave.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.