Q: After mistaking someone in a store for someone else the other day, I thought to myself, “Wow, that person is a dead ringer.” Where in the world does that term come from?
A: Sometimes a nonliteral usage makes sense only if you use your imagination a bit. This is one of those cases.
Since the 19th century, the nouns “ring” and “ringer” have been used in several extended senses, all loosely related to the making of a resonant sound.
One of these extended senses has to do with the notion of likeness or resemblance, and this is the sense that gave us the expression “dead ringer.”
In slang usage, a “ringer” is someone or something that closely resembles another. The adjective “dead” (in the sense of certain or complete) is usually added for emphasis, as it is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations.
There’s a certain poetic logic at work here. The literal meaning of “ringer”—someone who makes a resonant sound—has been extended to the visual sphere. Just as a sound can resonate and repeat itself, so can a visual image.
In American slang, “dead ringer” has meant “a person or thing that looks very like another,” or “a double,” since the 1870s, the OED says.
Oxford’s first published example is from a Colorado newspaper, the Weekly Register-Call of Central City (1878):
“The knight of La Mancha storming a wind mill, is a ‘dead ringer,’ so to speak, for Windy Bill riding down a phalanx of Mexicans on a long-eared mule.”
A similar noun phrase with the same meaning, “dead ring,” has been used in Australia and New Zealand since the 1890s, the OED says.
Today both “dead ringer” and “ringer” alone are used this way in both American and British English.
Oxford cites a 2005 example from a London newspaper, the Independent: “There is another ticket inspector, a ringer for Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, whose name is Simon de Montfort.”
Two additional extended senses of “ring” and “ringer” are worth mentioning. These have to do with the opposing notions of (1) truth and authenticity, and (2) impostors or fraudulent substitutes.
For example, when we speak of something that’s convincing (like a statement or an account), we say it has the “ring of truth,” an expression the OED dates from the 1840s.
Oxford’s earliest citation is from the Illuminated Magazine (1843): “There was a ring of truth and good-fellowship in the man’s voice, that, as we felt, made us old acquaintances.”
This phrase is probably related to similar usages dating from the early 1600s in which the genuineness or quality of coins, precious metals, glass, pottery, etc., was judged by how they “rang” when struck.
Material that was authentic or high-quality would “ring true,” while shoddy or fake merchandise would “ring false” or “ring hollow.”
This brings us to the shadier meanings of “ring” and “ringer,” in which resemblance is used for subterfuge.
The OED suggests that these illicit usages can be traced to 18th-century criminal slang, in which to “ring” or “ring changes” meant “to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item.”
In mid-19th-century American slang, a “ringer” (originally a “ringer of changes”) meant “a person who fraudulently substitutes a horse, athlete, etc. for another in a competition or sporting event,” the OED says.
Later, in wider usage, a “ringer” came to mean “a person who fraudulently substitutes one thing for another.”
Oxford’s earliest citation comes from a November 1858 issue of American Freemason: “He knew what dummies meant, as well as the most expert cracksman or ringer of changes in town.”
The shorter version, “ringer,” appeared in an 1877 issue of The Spirit of the Times, a New York sporting newspaper. “Ringers” here refers to the people responsible for the switching:
“While Hicks & Co. were engaged in the laudable cause of exposing the iniquitous ringers in Boston, they should not have overlooked Dolly Davis, Easter Maid, by Almont, and her performances near Boston.” (A trotter named Easter Maid was also raced under the name Dolly Davis.)
This slang use of “ringer” is now rare in American usage, though a similar term related to car theft emerged in British slang in the 1960s. The OED defines this use of “ringer” as meaning “a criminal who fraudulently changes the identity of a motor vehicle.”
One fraudulent sense of “ringer” that’s still with us on both sides of the Atlantic is the one that means the substitute itself. In this sense, the “ringer” is the stronger horse or athlete that’s underhandedly substituted for a weaker one.
This usage dates from American horse racing in the mid-1880s, and it’s still around today.
Here’s an OED citation from a 1980 issue of the Times of London: “The Crown claimed that the horse had been switched and that the winner was in fact a ‘ringer,’ a more successful stablemate called Cobblers March.”
This later example refers to an altogether different brand of sport. It comes from Ryan Nerz’s Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit (2006):
“The local eaters were going up against professionals—‘ringers’ brought in from out of town.”