'A dead ringer' - the meaning and origin of this phrase 'A dead ringer' - the meaning and origin of this phrase

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A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies.

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It first came into use soon after the word ringer itself, in the US at the end of the 19th century. So, 'dead ringer' is literally the same as 'exact duplicate'. This word originated in the US horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. We use phrases all the time without really giving their meaning a great deal of thought.

In fact, there is no connection between the two expressions - and neither of them have anything to do with coffins.

What's the meaning of the phrase 'A dead ringer'?

You may well know that dead ringer means exact duplicate, but why is that? Dead, in the sense of lifeless, is so commonly used that we tend to ignore its other meanings. Let's answer in two parts - why dead and why ringer? So, why dead; why ringer? What's the meaning of the phrase 'A dead ringer'?

From the same period is the term 'ring castors', meaning to surreptitiously exchange hats.


From the 20th century we have the Australian phrase, 'ring in the gray or knob ', meaning to substitute a double-sided penny for a genuine one. Castors, or casters, were hats made from beaver fur. I nebber done see such a semblence.

This is demonstrated in many phrases; 'dead shot', 'dead centre', 'dead heat', etc. What's the origin of the phrase 'A dead ringer'? This popular fallacy seems to have been encouraged by the erroneous belief that 'dead ringers' are saved by the bell.

Coming more up to date we have 'car ringing', which is the replacing of the identification numbers on a stolen car with those from a genuine usually scrapped vehicle. The meaning that's relevant here is exact or precise.

The earliest reference I can find that confirms the 'exact duplicate' meaning is from the Oshkosh Weekly Times, Junein a court report of a man charged with being 'very drunk': Let's first dispense with the nonsensical idea that's sometimes put forward as the origin of this phrase, that is, that it refers to people who were prematurely buried and who pulled on bell ropes that were attached to their coffins in order to attract attention.

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So, what is the origin of 'dead ringer'. To a non-English speaker the two terms appear to have nothing in common. The word is defined for us in a copy of the Manitoba Free Press from October So, that's ringer; what about dead?