Saved by the Bell (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Saved by the Bell"?

The term "saved by the bell" means saved at the last possible moment.
Saved by the Bell (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • The bus arrived before Jack could answer Jill's question. He was definitely saved by the bell.
  • The police officer's radio summoned him to an urgent job just before he searched my bag. I was saved by the bell!
  • The goal was disallowed because the referee had blow the whistle. Saved by the bell! Well, literally the whistle, but you know what I mean.
The term "saved by the bell" originates from boxing in the late 19th century; however, it was not popularized until the 1920s, most probably by the radio commentaries of boxing bouts. The term initially referred to a boxer who was taking a pounding being saved by the bell at the end of a round, giving him time to recover.

In 1893, "The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel" from Massachusetts used the phrase in its literal meaning:
  • "Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds."
Nowadays, "saved by the bell" is used figuratively to refer to any last-minute intervention that rescues a situation.

Example of use:

  • I was trying to explain my presence to the doorman when his radio called him to another, more-pressing incident. Saved by the bell!

Competing Theory

"Saved by the bell" 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. If, after being buried, the "deceased" came around, they could ring the bell to alert people. The fear of being buried alive was rife in those times, to the extent that many (including President George Washington) believed that Jesus was initially buried alive (as opposed to being resurrected):
  • "I am just going. Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead...Do you understand me?" (President George Washington, 1797)
  • "All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive." (Lord Chesterfield, 1769)
  • "Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won't be buried alive." (last words of Composer Frederic Chopin, 1849)
Detractors of this theory note that the term does not appear in print until the 1920s (evidence) and also highlight that there are no reported cases of a person being saved by the surface bell.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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