Q From Gord Forsythe: Any ideas on the origin of ringer, meaning a contestant or an athlete who is entered dishonestly into a competition?
A Let me pass on to you, for your enjoyment, a story recently told me by an American. He explained that at one time the rules for those who were allowed to take part in college football were not as scrupulously followed as they might be. Sometimes teams would hire ex-students to play for them, many of whom were married and had wedding rings. Hence ringer.
There’s no truth in that at all, of course, it’s just a folk tale. In the sense of an unauthorised substitute, the word is US slang, dating from the latter part of the last century, originally in connection with horse racing. A horse of better class than that allowed was entered fraudulently into a race, with bets being placed on it by those in the know.
The word has spread its associations more widely since, and can now refer to anything which has been tampered with in order to deceive, such as a motor vehicle. In this sense it is now common in Britain as well as the US, which has nicely returned the word to its source, because the idea of a fraudulent substitution is originally from the British English verb to ring. It dates from the early nineteenth century and is an abbreviation of the older to ring the changes, originally from bell-ringing, but used to indicate that something inferior has been substituted. The Australian term ring-in, meaning much the same as ringer, comes from the same source.
Many people know of equally preposterous stories associated with the expanded term dead ringer. A common one is that people in Victorian times were so afraid of being buried while still alive that they had their coffins fitted with a string and a bell so they could attract the attention of a graveyard attendant if they woke up. Though the fear of premature burial was indeed intense and various inventions that included bells were really developed to reassure people, the expression has nothing to do with the matter. It’s just ringer with dead added to give the phrase greater emphasis. It’s known from the 1890s — my earliest example is from an Ohio newspaper in 1893: “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.”
Incidentally, the Australian sense of ringer, for the top gun or best-performing shearer in a shed, comes originally from a much older English dialect word meaning something outstanding or superlative.