Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dead Ringer

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 3, 2011

A dead ringer is, or is perceived to be, an exact duplicate of someone else … a doppelgänger, if you wish.  Dead ringers have been around for as long as there have been people but the term hasn’t been around for quite as long.

On July 28, 1932, in a Los Angeles Times news exclusive on the John Gottlieb Wendel case involving Thomas Patrick Morris, the scandalous headline read:

WENDEL CLAIM SUBSTANTIATED: Asserted Heir to Fortune Scores at Hearing Declared “Dead Ringer” for Man He Calls “Poppa” – Story of Parentage Refuted by ex-Playmate

Back in 1893, according to the New York Daily News, an Ohio newspaper reported:

Israel Williams wearing a wig would be no longer Israel Williams, but would be a dead ringer for Wellington just before the battle of Waterloo.

And back on June 10, 1891, the Detroit Free Press published a story entitled:  “HE WAS NO TENDERFOOT: A Reporter’s Mistake Leads to Mutual Explanations.”  It read in part:

Mutual explanations followed and the reporter squared himself by securing evidence from several outsiders that the gentleman from Lorain was a dead ringer for the good looking statesman from Saginaw.

An earlier reference confirming the use of the term comes from the Oshkosh Weekly Times of June 1888, where there’s a court report of a man charged with being ‘very drunk’:

“Dat ar is a markable semlance be shoo”, said Hart looking critically at the picture. “Dat’s a dead ringer fo me. I nebber done see such a semblence.”

Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to located the term dead ringer published elsewhere prior to 1888 although from the way it was used in the Oshkosh Weekly Times, it’s obvious that the phrase was used by educated and uneducated folk alike by that time.

So what exactly is a ringer?

Back in the day, a ringer was a horse that was substituted for another horse and that looked so much like the original horse that it fooled the bookies.  In other words, it was a horse used to defraud bookies.  The Manitoba Free Press published this definition in October 1882:

A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.’

However, the word “ringer” goes back to the 1700s where “to ring” meant a coin was tested to see if it was genuine or counterfeit.  The test was to strike the coin with a finger or other object.  If it rang, it was genuine; if it didn’t ring — in other words, if it was dead — it was counterfeit.

And what of the word “dead” you might ask?   Used in the sense of “utter, absolute, quite” it was used in the term “dead drunk” which was first attested to in the 1590s and later by the term “dead heat” which was attested to in 1796.

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