Q&A: Origin of “saved by the bell”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, bell-lieve it or not…

Q: Hey AWC, where does the phrase “saved by the bell” come from?

A: Good question. Any guesses?

Q: Something to do with a telephone?

A: Not quite. Let’s start with a dictionary definition for the phrase – care of our friends at the Macquarie Dictionary. They actually define it both literally and figuratively.

Q: Oooh fancy.

A: Yep. The figurative meaning is simply “to be rescued from a predicament at the last minute”. The literal meaning is when a boxer is “saved from being counted out by the bell marking the end of the round.”

Q: Ding ding!

A: That’s the one.

Q: So I guess both meanings both relate to being saved from peril by a bell, yes? It’s just that in one, there is an ACTUAL bell.

A: That’s right. And boxing is actually the true origin of this phrase – first appearing in print in America in 1902. By 1912, it was also being used in a literal sense in the classroom.

Q: Oh, a classroom – yeah that rings a bell.

A: Haha, well something “ringing a bell” – as in prompting a memory – is another idiom that was first used in the 1930s, perhaps as a result of the Pavlovian bell ringing psychology experiments.

Q: I’m very familiar with those. When my grandfather hears a bell, he simply must eat a slice of pavlova.

A: No, that’s not what… never mind. Anyway, people had been ringing bells for servants for centuries before then, but the idea of a bell jogging a memory is relatively new.

Q: Can we get back to the bells that do the saving?

A: Sure, so boxing and classrooms were the original literal uses. But after 1912, it only took a couple of years for “saved by the bell” to start being used figuratively – first seen in 1915.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Actually, yes. A more colourful origin story relates to the fear that people in Victorian times had of being buried alive.

Q: Ummm, pretty sure that fear still applies today!

A: True, although with medical science being rougher around the edges back then, it may have been a more legitimate concern! Anyway, according to this false-but-fun origin story, dead bodies were placed into coffins and given a bell, so that on the off-chance they did wake up, they could be…

Q: Saved by the bell!

A: Exactly.

Q: Wow. Imagine being halfway through a eulogy and “dingalingaling…”!

A: Rather awkward.

Q: I’d probably wait around to at least hear what people had to say about me first.

A: Fair enough. Anyway, while the fear of being buried alive was real during the 1800s, this origin is not. It does have more flair than a boxer avoiding a knockout blow though.

Q: More “bells and whistles” you might say!

A: Nice. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, bells and whistles are “extra items or features that are useful or decorative but not essential”.

Q: Where did it come from?

A: No one is entirely sure about this one, likely first appearing in the 1800s or early 1900s. One theory is that it related to the sounds that steam locomotives would make. When purchasing model train sets, buyers would ask if they came with actual “bells and whistles”.

Q: Haha, nice. I choo choo choose the one with the extra features!

A: Exactly. Another theory suggests it was in fact taken from the ornate style organs seen in fairgrounds or even the early film theatres of the day.

Q: OR maybe it was a little-known band of bicycle riding referees?

A: Another ridiculous theory, but sure. Idioms can come from anywhere.

Q: So, to recap, being “saved by the bell” originated in boxing but quickly jumped to the classroom and then just any situation, bell or not.

A: Yep.

Q: And it definitely has nothing to do with Beauty and the Beast?

A: Huh?

Q: Well, it can be argued that the prince or Beast in question, was saved by Belle.

A: Haha, it’s a cute theory. If you want to believe it, be our guest… be our guest…

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