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Saved by the bell!

It would be unfortunate to drop the ball and not have a post on sporting idioms during our sporting English month. I am down to the wire however, with only a few days until metaphor month begins! I can already hear you sighing. You think I am going to try bowl you over with a no holds barred, blow-by-blow account of all sporting idioms which would, hands down, be the worst post ever, and it would be a safe bet that you would throw in the towel and head to our archives to find something readable! Au contraire! Today I would like to look at the phrase saved by the bell, a sporting idiom, or is it?

Saved by the bell – origin of the idiom

Now the authority on linguistic origins (the interwebs) seems to think this phrase has a boxing origin. When a boxer has been knocked to the floor and the referee is counting down for the knockout (usually by hitting the floor really hard and yes, this is arguably the most exciting part of boxing), if the end-of-the-round bell should ring during this countdown, the downed fighter then has until the next round to recover. Hence, saved by the bell.

However, I always had it in my head (not that this has ever been a reliable indication of veracity) that this phrase had an infinitely more cool (historical) origin involving Victorian times, Big Ben, a guard and a nap. Distilled to the essentials, the guard is accused of falling asleep while on duty (in my version there are escaping prisoners), but successfully defends himself by recalling that Big Ben (or some other bell) chimed 13 times that midnight. A mechanical fault with the aforementioned bell confirms his story, proving the guard was awake and hence he was saved by the bell.

If your tastes run a little darker, there is a third possibility. There was a problem, in the 19th century, involving people being buried alive (comas and unconsciousness being mistaken for death). The solution? Patented coffins with bells. You wake up 6 feet under, ring the bell and a passerby or the nice folk from the Society for Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead (a real society!) will help you out. Dead ringer anyone? Actually no. Apparently dead ringer originates from the dastardly practice of substituting one racehorse for one that looks similar.

‘Why do you want to pin the origin down to an historical rather than boxing source’, you ask. Well, a quick count of Wikipedia’s list of sporting idioms reveals a chilling and disturbing fact. 45% of sporting idioms originate from boxing! This pugilistic dominance of modern idiomatic sporting expressions is probably reflective of modern society with its honed confrontational linguistic elements (square off, go another round, pull no punches, sidelined etc).

Sporting idioms

So, I invite you to help rectify this dreadful imbalance in modern sporting idiom usage and share your favourite sporting idioms in the comments (preferably not from boxing!). I’ll start with two of mine and I will add yours to the list as they are posted.

Bulge the old onion bag – score a goal.
– an offensive play in basketball (a pass basically) involving jumping, catching the ball and scoring a basket. The term apparently originates from French circus acrobats telling their partners when to jump (‘allez hop!’, meaning, ‘go, jump!’).

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Jonathan Cole


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