The Grammarphobia Blog

The ring of truth

Q: Did the slang term “ringer” originally refer to someone who brings people into a carnie show?

A: I’ve searched the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, but I can’t find any evidence that the term was ever used to mean a barker at a carnie show.

The noun “ringer” has lots of other meanings, of course, including a horseshoe thrown around a stake as well as somebody who rings a bell or chime. The two most common slang definitions are someone who looks like another person, and a contestant entered dishonestly into a competition.

Since about 1785, the verb “ring” has meant to manipulate or change illicitly, according to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. An 1812 citation in the OED defines “to ring castors” as to leave a shabby hat in church and take a good one in its place. (A “castor” is an old term for hat.)

The noun “ringer” was later used to describe something stolen and then altered or disguised, like a horse. And since the 1890s, “ringer” has also been used to describe a horse or athlete or other competitor entered fraudulently. An 1890 citation in the OED refers to “the most notorious ‘ringer’ on the turf.”

Evan Morris’s Word Detective website says the idiom “ring of truth” harks back to the early 19th century, when counterfeit coins were common. Merchants detected fakes by dropping coins on the counter and listening to the sound. The ring of an adulterated coin would be dull compared to the sound of one made from pure silver or gold.


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