Who would’ve thought this Monday evening that we’d all be reading and talking so much about a cemetery? But these days you just never know what’s going to happen, and now I’m thinking about the word cemetery.
The word dates back to the 14th century, and originally comes from the Greek koimeterion, meaning dormitory. Which shows that for a long time now we’ve been euphemistic about death.
Of course you might think that an easy way to avoid stressing about the spelling of the word cemetery is simply to use graveyard instead. And that would certainly be easy, but it would also be incorrect!
You see, there is strictly a difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. A cemetery is generally found in any kind of open public space, but a graveyard is strictly a burial ground located within a churchyard. And that of course leads me on to the phrase graveyard shift.
This is one of those expressions which attracts lots of wild theories about its origins. The stories about graveyard shift in particular are interesting, because they’re quite directly related to similarly fanciful theories about other expressions.
Legend has it that in 16th-century England, graverobbers were noticing scratch marks inside when coffins when they were stealing the bodies, and realised that people were being buried alive!
It was then decided to attach the hands of corpses to bells, which they could ring if they were actually alive. Someone would therefore have to stay up all night (work the graveyard shift), in case someone rang their bell (a dead ringer!), and they could be rescued (saved by the bell!)
Such bells did actually exist, but weren’t very common, and sadly they weren’t related to any of these expressions. Dead ringer comes from horse racing. A ringer is a substitute for a similar horse, usually for illicit reasons, and dead in this case means exact or precise (e.g. dead right, dead centre).
And what about saved by the bell? It’s actually another sporting term, and you can probably guess it’s meaning (it’s even used literally quite often in this sport). Yes, it comes from boxing, and refers to a boxer who’s taking a lot of punishment, but is “saved” when the bell rings to indicate a break between rounds.
And graveyard shift itself? Like the other two, much more mundane but logical than stories of the wrongly buried ringing bells in the night. It simply refers to a shift taking place at night, when a workplace is quiet and peaceful, like a…. what’s the word again? cemetery!