Vivisepulture, or being buried alive, can be avoided with the help of a bell and some stringMatthew Seccombe

Though I hadn’t yet been born during its original run of 1989 to 1993, I was a firm fan of the sitcom Saved By The Bell as a teenager watching reruns. To this day, I can sing the theme song word (if not note) perfectly, and I still maintain that Zack Morris was my first ever real crush. Clearly this show was more formative than I ever knew, because it was only recently that I realised that I thought the phrase ‘saved by the bell’ had been invented by the Bayside High gang. It’s never even really mentioned in any of the episodes, but the song over the opening credits describe being ‘saved by the bell’ in a number of escapades, such as being asked to hand in homework that had an unfortunate run in with a dog the night before. It’s always made sense to me that the bell in question would be a school bell, and that this idiom really did refer to getting out of sticky situations in class when the bell started to ring. How I thought a show from 1989 could have given rise to an idiom that’s been around for much longer than that is less clear, but I suppose I was just dazzled by the intensely nineties outfits of the characters.

“People claim that this idiom comes from the fear of being buried alive”

Unsurprisingly, this is not the real origin of the phrase ‘saved by the bell’. The theory we hear most often is actually a misconception, though it’s based in some truth. A lot of people claim that this idiom comes from the fear of being buried alive. Of course, it’s a thought that still scares us today, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this was a widespread and very present anxiety. Medical advances in the present day mean that we’re unlikely to think someone is dead mistakenly and bury them while still alive (though, terrifyingly, it has been known to happen), but with much more rudimentary medical tools available in the 1700s, a lot of people were quite rightly worried that they might be thought dead when they weren’t. It was fairly common to stipulate on your deathbed or in your will that you didn’t want to be buried until at least a few days had passed since your death, or that you wanted to be cut open before being interred, just to be absolutely sure that the person being buried really was dead. Not everyone, however, was convinced that these precautions were enough, and people started to design and patent ‘safety coffins’ in both the UK and US. These were pretty elaborate contraptions that had a bell hanging above them on a scaffold, attached to a rope which went into the coffin and was tied to the wrist of the corpse. Should the supposed corpse turn out still to be alive and find themselves waking up in a coffin, they could give the bell a tug and alert anyone above ground to their continued existence. Just in case that also didn’t do the trick, some of the designs included a glass panel in the lid of the coffin. This ensured that if the person being buried woke up during the funeral service, they would be seen by the mourners and would be able to signal to them that they were still alive.

It seems entirely plausible that our idiom would come from this. It makes sense, it well predates the first use of the phrase, and was widespread enough a fear to have entered common parlance. Despite all this, though, it’s probably a myth that this is the correct etymology. There aren’t any recorded cases of anyone actually needing to use the bell mechanism in the safety coffins, so they never actually ‘saved’ anyone. The phrase also didn’t appear until much later, so there seems to be too much of a gap between the fear of burial alive and the creation of the idiom for them to be linked. It’s also first recorded in a completely different context, and it’s this context that seems to be the one behind the phrase.

‘Saved by the bell’ appears in an American newspaper in 1893 in reference to a boxer, who apparently only survived as many rounds as he did before suffering a knockout at his opponent’s hands because he was repeatedly saved by the bell, being rung to mark the end of the round. This pretty much coincides with the period when the phrase was entering widespread use, and seems a much more likely contender for the original context of the idiom.

A.C. Slater might have been a wrestler, not a boxer, but we can still tell ourselves he was Saved By The Bell’s homage to their namesake. But enough etymology for one week; I’m off to watch reruns and wonder why Zack Morris wears so many patchwork jumpers.

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