Monday, April 3, 2017
The Origins of Common Expressions, No.18: Dead Ringer
Meaning: an exact duplicate
History: A ringer is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies. This word originated in the U,S, horse-racing fraternity at the end of the 19th century. The word is defined for us in a copy of Canada's Manitoba Free Press from October 1882: "A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a 'ringer.'"
Dead, in the sense of lifeless, is so commonly used that we tend to ignore its other meanings. The meaning that is relevant here is exact or precise. This is demonstrated in many phrases; 'dead shot', 'dead centre', 'dead heat', etc.
So, 'dead ringer' is literally the same as 'exact duplicate'. It first came into use soon after the word ringer itself, in the U. S. at the end of the 19th century.