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Where did that phrase come from - Saved by the bell and the graveyard shift
Stan St. Clair

by Stan St. Clair


 Since the beginning of publication of my column, I have encouraged my friends and readers to ask me about expressions they’ve wondered about. Note, at the end of this article there are now two ways to contact me.

Awhile back Ron Frye asked me about two unrelated phrases: “Saved by the bell” and “Graveyard shift.” Today I want to address this request.

The most logical explanation for saved by the bell is the boxer who is being beaten to a pulp and the bell announces the end of the round. This came into use as a boxing term in the late 19th century, but its origins go back to as early as the 17th century.

The term, however, originally applied to being rescued by a ringing bell attached to a coffin to keep people from being buried alive due to a lack of medical understanding and unconsciousness. People were often pronounced dead when they were in comas, seizures, and other states of near death. 

There were several patients in England and early America who opted for “safety coffins” with bells incorporated into the designs which would ring in the event of body movement. These special coffins were registered in the late 1800s and as late as 1955. This is also where the saying “dead ringer” originated.    

The origin of the expression graveyard shift actually had nothing to do with graveyards or burying people. Back in the old days, when sailors and ocean-faring folks went to sea, those who worked the late night hours got blurry-eyed, and their eyes watered trying to stay awake. Since any thick liquid was called “gravy,” the saying “gravy-eyed” came to be used among sailors. 

The late-night shift was then called “the gravy-eyed shift.” When the sailors were in at port and went into pubs, they told others that they were pulling the gravy-eyed shift. Land lubbers somehow didn’t get the phrase, and among themselves, thinking in the superstitious notions of the era, began calling it the graveyard shift, believing it to be a late-night watch for the dead spirits, or something of that sort. Evidently, the imagined phrase caught on, for this is what it is still called today.


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text Stan St. Clair at 931-212-3303, or email him at stan@stclair.net.