Dead Ringer (Origin)

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Dead Ringer"?

The term "dead ringer" means 100% identical or an exact copy.
Dead Ringer (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Your daughter is a dead ringer for your wife.
  • Wow, it's like you've stolen my dog! She is a dead ringer for my Suzie.
  • Is that watch a fake? It's a dead ringer for the real thing.
"Dead ringer" originates from 19th-century horse racing, where a "ringer" was a high-quality horse substituted for a similar-looking lower-quality one in order to defraud the bookies.

The word "ringer" comes from the verb "to ring," which means to create a copy for fraudulent purposes. The word probably has a boxing origin, where a "ringer" was a person who was accomplished in the ring but who pretended to be a novice in order to defraud gamblers. Nowadays, in amateur sporting circles, the term "ringer" is used to mean high-quality outsiders (e.g., professional players) who strengthen a team. Using "ringers" is usually considered outside the spirit of the competition.
  • Of course they beat us. They brought in three ringers from abroad.
The word "dead" has long been used to mean accurate or close (e.g., "dead centre," "dead heat," "dead on," "dead right").

Competing Theory

"Dead ringer" originates from people's fear of being buried alive. In the 18th century particularly, a dying person would asked, upon their death, to be buried with a rope that attached to a bell on the surface. If it transpired that the deceased was not in fact dead, then they could use the rope to ring the bell. Once rescued, the saved person would be an exact copy of the "deceased" person (because it was the "deceased" person). The rescued person would have been saved by the bell, and supporters of this theory cite that saying as further evidence of this theory.

Detractors of this theory highlight that there are no accounts of people being saved by these surface bells and point out that "saved by the bell" is a boxing term.

Competing Theory

"Dead Ringer" comes from the practice of a young child being paid to swing on the legs of a hanging victim to ensure their neck were broken after execution. As this resembled pulling a bell cord in church and as it ensured death, the child was called a "dead ringer."

Detractors of this theory note that it does not explain why "dead ringer" means an "exact copy" and highlight that it is a popular theory only because of its morbidness.

Previous and Next Sayings

More Proverbs, Sayings, and Idioms

author logo

This page was written by Craig Shrives.