Several reasons why you should not go to church

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The Independent Online
A BIG welcome for Dr Wordsmith, the language expert who has agreed to answer your questions on the origins of many of the phrases in everyday life that still puzzle us. Take it away, Doctor]

When someone bears a strong resemblance to someone else, why do we say he is 'a dead ringer' for him?

Dr Wordsmith writes: In the old days, when communities were much more tight-knit than they are now, it was harder to be a successful killer. People knew so much about each other's activities that in the event of a violent death, they would know who the victim was, who the murderer was and probably the motive. The only sure way of carrying out an undetectable murder was by providing a corpse that nobody could identify. The best way of doing that was by persuading people that the victim of your murder was a stranger, a vagabond, somebody who would not be recognised or missed.

Now, there were a few professions which even then were mobile. Soldiers, tinkers, peddlers and friars were all wanderers. Bell-ringers were also part of the wandering fraternity, it being quite common for them to rove around looking for work. So one of the safest ways of committing a murder was to leave your victim at the top of a church tower. When found, he was almost always assumed to be an errant bell-ringer who had met a violent end - hence the expression, dead ringer. People would often suspect there was more to it, but would not inquire too deeply. So when someone said that so-and-so was a dead ringer for someone else, it meant that it was someone pretending to be someone else, or a convenient scapegoat. We still use the expression, though not in the original sense.

Can you tell me the derivation of 'Pull the other one, it's got bells on'?

This comes from medieval times, when people used to fake the circumstance of murders by leaving corpses in church towers. If you were trying to make the evidence convincing, you would have to decide what method of murder to imitate, and the method most often chosen was hanging, since there were so many ropes to hand in a belfry]

But unless you were careful you would make a lot of noise with the bell while hanging your corpse on the rope attached to it, which would bring villagers running in to see what was going on, so often the corpse would be suspended from a rope which wasn't a bell rope, but which had been hung from a beam for this one-off murder, and left to look like a bell rope. When the forces of law and order came to investigate, they might well check to see which ropes were genuine, hence pulling the other one to see if it's got bells on. We still use the expression, though not in the original sense.

Have you any idea where we get the expression 'Give him enough rope to hang himself' ?

You may not be surprised to learn that it comes from the old habit of disguising murder victims as dead bell-ringers. As I may have mentioned, one of the favourite methods was hanging, especially to make it look like a suicide. However, if the body was hanging from a rope that was too high for anyone but a giant to commit suicide with, the authorities would smell a rat. Hence the advice, when faking a hanging, to 'give him enough rope to hang himself'. We use the expression, though not in the original sense.

I hesitate to ask this, but do you have any idea where the expression 'Hell's bells' comes from?

This was the name given to the bell-ringing changes used when there was a funeral of someone who had been found dead in a church tower and who might or might not have committed suicide. People would hear the bells and cross themselves, muttering: 'Why does the devil get to have the best changes?', or, 'Hell's bells'. We still use the expression, though with slightly different overtones.

Do you happen to know why a TV commercial is called a jingle?

This comes from the ancient art of bell-ringing. In the old days, many sequences of notes had specific meanings, so the bell-ringers could send out announcements - news flashes, or perhaps a weather update. These bits were called 'jingles' to distinguish them from the main musical themes, known as the 'changes'.

Do you have any idea why they say: 'A change is as good as a rest'?

That is all Dr Wordsmith has time for today. He will be back again to explain all human life in terms of bell-ringing.

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