A WORD IN THE HAND: BUNKUM
We can’t lay undead hokum to rest, but we can ring the bell on bunkum creepiness
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Whoever said digital news consumers have short attention spans reckoned without the “resurrection” of an allegedly previously dead man named Elliot. This “happened” more than a week ago but it is still trending. You could call it a trend without end.
It might seem preposterous to many but the resurrection of Elliot is difficult to debunk entirely because you can’t go back in time to prove his deadness or aliveness in the moments before Pastor Alph Lukau pulled him from his coffin. I’m pretty sure I was alive last Friday but I can’t honestly vouch for every second between then and now; for all I know I might have died and been resurrected at some point in the interim.
The Elliot frenzy has got reporters turning to all the idioms associated with death, except many of these are similarly hampered by mythology. If we can’t expose the hokum peddled by Pastor Lukau, we can at least dispense with the bunkum surrounding some much-used phrases.
Bunkum, incidentally, is the mother of “debunk”. The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that when 19th-century US politician Felix Walker gave a long, tedious, and pointless speech purely so that his constituents would read about him in the paper, the name of the district he represented – Buncombe, pronounced bunkum – became slang for “nonsense”. To debunk, therefore, is to pull the truth-suppression valve and let all the bunkum escape in a rush of fetid gas.
The subject of today’s debunking is the phrase “saved by the bell”. Schoolchildren associate this with the relief experienced when the bell signalling the end of a class rings and saves you from the teacher who is about to ask for the homework you haven’t done. That would be a palpably sensible interpretation of the phrase, but it’s not actually true.
Those following the mysterious affair of the corpse of Elliot will have read at least once in the past week that the real origin of “saved by the bell” is far more macabre. There are several versions of the explanation, but they all involve a coffin, a string, a bell and a body that isn’t dead.
The theory holds that “safety coffins” were constructed during times of virulent illness that left victims either dead or in a state so close to death that not even a mirror held against their lips could show you whether or not they were alive (and in any case hardly anyone owned a mirror). To save poor souls from the potentially horrible fate of waking up underground, various devices were invented whereby the person who was no longer a corpse could pull a string that rang a bell that announced the corpse’s state of undeadness.
Sorry to burst this creepy bubble, but it’s all bunkum.
The Phrase Finder, a source I trust more than the hand of Pastor Lukau, commissioned etymologists to do research, and this was their conclusion: “There’s no evidence to show that anyone was ever saved by these coffins or even that they were ever put to use, and there’s a similar lack of evidence of the phrase ‘saved by the bell’ ever being used in that sense prior to its having been used in other contexts. In fact, the expression is boxing slang and it came into being in the latter half of the 19th century. A boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be ‘saved’ from defeat by the respite signalled by the bell that marks the end of a round.”
It might not be nearly as exciting as someone coming back from the dead, but at least it’s true.