Contrary to popular belief, the phrase “saved by the bell” has nothing to do with people being buried alive. In fact, the expression is a boxing slang.
Coined in the 19th century, saved by the bell is a reference to the bell that marks the end of the round. When a boxer was in danger of losing the bout and the bell rang, it was actually saving the boxer from defeat. According to phrases.org.uk, the earliest reference to the expression is found in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893:
“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.” So how did we end up with the ‘buried alive’ myth? (the article continues after the ad)
First of all, for those who don’t know, the myth says that the phrase was invented during the 17th century and originates from the fact that people were buried with a bell attached to their coffin just in case they were comatose and mistakenly reported dead. By having the bell attached to their finger, the buried persons would have rung the bell and saved by the relative who, for 24hours, would have remained at the burial site.
There were indeed patented coffins that came with the bell attachment called ‘safety coffins’ as being buried alive was a common fear at the time. But, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that these coffins were ever used, let alone save anyone. In addition, up until the 19th century, the phrase is nowhere to be found.
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