Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Episode 234: Saved by the Bell

This week Shauna and Dan look into the origins of Saved by the Bell. Spoiler alert: It does NOT come from taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive. That is a particularly persistent myth with no evidence to support it. Bonus: Dan crushes on Kelly, Lisa, and Jessie. Plus, SPORTS!

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 234: Saved by the Bell
Record Date: April 14, 2024
Air Date: May 8, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever been at a family reunion when that one weird uncle starts talking religion or politics or something and you know it’s about to get ugly? But then, someone swoops in to save the day by causing a distraction or giving people a chance to get out of the situation. My paternal grandmother was very good at this, with things like, “who wants pie” or “let’s go pick some pecans in the yard”. When that kind of thing happens, you might say you have been saved by the bell.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the figurative use of saved by the bell means

(figurative) to be rescued from a difficult situation by a timely intervention.
End Quote

Unlike what the internet, and some seemingly reputable sources, will tell you, there is absolutely no evidence to show this phrase has anything to do with being buried alive. That popular myth has spread far and wide. We talked about it in episode 61 on the phrase Dead Ringer, which also has the same false origin story.

Saved by the bell, according to the evidence, actually originates with boxing. Here’s the OED one more time

(Boxing) to be saved from being counted out by the ringing of the bell at the end of a round
End Quote

I will say I found the phrase once before this, but it does not appear it was being used figurative, but as a literal saved by the bell, as in this example out of the:

The Spectator, September 5, 1885.

With the clang of the bell the spectre knight vanishes, and Gudrun remained along, “Saved by the bell that rang out well, saved by the holy bell.”
End Quote

And while that is the right usage, it’s also literal and there is no surrounding evidence that it was anything other than a coincidence that the term was used in this way. It’s more likely the phrase rhymed with what the author was trying to say, so they used it.

Another common thing I found was an 1889 story, published in numerous papers called Saved by a Bell Button. A few examples dropped the work button from the title, but since this story was talking about a morse code button set up in a hotel room to communicate with the front desk, it doesn’t really fit our phrase. But we will look at the whole, fascinating story in our behind the scenes video which airs every Friday on Patreon.

The first time I could find the phrase in print was in the report of a boxing match between Bobby Burns and Martin Flaherty. I pulled this from The Providence News out of Rhode Island, dated February 21, 1893.

Burns was nearly groggy in the seventh and the bell saved him. In the eighth round hardly a blow was struck, both sparring for wind. The next three rounds saw honors easy and in the twelfth Flaherty was saved by the bell, being knocked down by a stiff left-hander.
End Quote

The article uses two other examples of the concept of our phrase, throughout the recap, including “the bell again saved him”, “the gong sounded just in time to save him again”, and “twice Flaherty was saved by the ringing of the gong”. So the concept of the bell saving Flaherty, who did ultimately win the fight in the 32nd round, was a consistent theme.

Here is one from the Madison Daily Leader out of South Dakota, November 8, 1898. Another boxing usage, this one titled Saved by the Bell. Using the phrase as a title of the work seems to express the reader has some understanding about the work from the title.

Saved by the Bell
Joe Choynski narrowly escaped being put to sleep several times last night at the Arena Athletic club before the savage onslaughts of Gus Ruhlin of Akron, Ohio. Each time he was apparently saved by the bell. The bout was limited to six rounds and was one of the fastest seen here in a long time.
End Quote

I’ll also note I found the phrase saved by the bell used tons of times starting in the early 1920s in British newspapers. In every case I could find they were referencing American fights, but it shows the phrase easily made its way to the United Kingdom through print media.

Here’s one talking about wrestling instead of boxing, this is from the Princeton Alumni Weekly dated March 11, 1925. Princeton is a prestigious college in New Jersey.

In it they mention how Coach Foster’s wrestlers lost two clear opportunities to gain a winning point. The first was when one of the wrestlers got caught in a headlock that he probably should have been able to avoid, and the second

Was in the unlimited weight class when Tuttle of Yale was saved by the bell from a fall at the hands of Meislahn of Princeton.
End Quote

Since there are no bells in wrestling, we know this ‘saved by the bell’ is a figurative use, likely riffing off of the usage in boxing.

Here is another figurative usage dated October 6, 1931. It comes to us from the Daily Herald out of London, England. It is part of the story “Peril Harvest” by Ben Bolt. This is from a chapter called Saved by a Bell.

Saved by a Bell
Probably Madeline, awakened suddenly from sleep, had seen or become aware of some intruder in her room and in the instant of being attacked had gripped and tugged the bell rope in a desperate call for help.
End Quote

Here is another one, this is a short story called “Saved by the Bell” by John Brophy. I found it published in the Daily Mirror out of London, England dated August 30, 1937. In it, Elsie is about to deliver her few lines, her opportunity to shine, when one of the actresses playing one of the many high school girls on stage carelessly knocked over a prop that landed in the pit. This caused Elsie to lose her concentration and is where we pick up the story.

It all happened in a few seconds, hardly long enough for the audience to realise that the play stood poised on the brink of disaster.

Only those of long theatrical experience, like Sandor, like the Budapest producer in the stalls, knew the urgency of the moment. The producer, of course, was helpless, but not Sandor.

Elsie, waiting sick at heart and seeing her opportunity apparently drifting away from her, was startled by a sudden small tinkling sound from the schoolmaster’s desk, at the opposite side of the stage, where Sandor was sitting.

There was a little hand-bell there. It had never been used in the play, but now Sandor had picked it up and rung it sharply. With heavy pedagogic solemnity he said: Will all you young ladies kindly pay attention to me? And whoever dropped that noisy article please don’t do it again”
End Quote

And so, Elsie was able to regain her composure and the play had been saved from disasters. So the title of the short story, Saved by the Bell, is a play on that moment.

Here’s another figurative use from the Kodiak Mirror out of Kodiak, Alaska dated September 2, 1944.

“Cappy” Campbell was saved by the bell this week. He was down on the dock, all packed, ready to head south when a fellow came down and offered him a job in the ATS. “Cappy” took it.
End Quote

That example is a good one because there is no bell in the story the writer is alluding to, therefore we must assume it is the proverbial bell signifying one is out of time. So this is a great example of our phrase being used in 1944 much as it is used today.

Here’s one from the Montana Farmer-Stockman out of Great Falls, Montana. It is dated May 15, 1958. I really like this one because it shows the usage of a child with the concept.

While we try to teach our little Joyce the gentle things of life, that heartless teacher TV runs amok in our home. She seems to be developing a dual personality that enables her to be a model mother one minute, and a wild wrestler the next. The other day I found her boxing with her brother (Billie was on his knees so he’d be level with her). She was quite a boxer, until he began taking advantage of her. Then she called “Ding! Ding!” and ran to a corner, saved by the bell.
End Quote

And here is an example from an advertisement in the Evening Star out of Washington, DC dated April 21, 1963. This is from the presto company that makes kitchenware and kitchen gadgets.

Saved by the Bell, the Presto bell that is! Times intervals up to one hour! Use it for cooking, baking, phone-calls! $2.95
End Quote

To bring us back around to the original usage, I want to read from the United States Congressional Record August 5, 1965, speaking on some of the safety innovations in boxing.

Among the code’s provisions…
Elimination of the “saved by the bell” rule (except in the final round, a fighter not on his feet by a count of 10 is considered to have been knocked out).
End Quote

Basically this change, put in place in the mid-1960s, meant that if a fighter was knocked down when the bell rang, it would no longer allow him the time between rounds to get back up and steady himself. And since at least the early 1890s, that’s how the phrase was used. And it looks like by the mid-1920s the phrase was being used in more figurative ways to a point that by the mid-1960s it was showing up in advertisements with no mention of bells or boxing. And since then it has been a common phrase in the English speaking world.

With that, let’s move to our uses in modern media, but first we need to say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

We’ll kick off in 1969 with Saved by the Bell, a song by Robin Gibb. You may recognize the name of Bee Gees fame but he also had a successful solo career. Here are some of the lyrics.

Saved by the bell on your own carousel
Now who can tell, if you'll love that man as well
Now I'll walk down our great lane
End Quote

Shauna, do you know how hard it was to search for any sort of media for this phrase after 1990 that didn’t include this our next entry and its many, many subsequent works?

I am, of course, talking about the TV show that many of our listeners think of when we mention Saved by the Bell, and that’s the TV show of the same name that aired 1989 - 1993. The show hit all of my favorite points. It was an ensemble cast, not just focused on one person. It had drama, but was focused on comedy more than anything else. The show followed a group of kids at Bayside High in California.  

Saved By the Bell actually started as a Disney Channel show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss and included Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris, Dustin Diamond as Screech Powers, Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle, and Dennis Haskings as Mr. Belding. The show was canceled after 13 episodes and re-tooled into the successful NBC sitcom, adding Mario Lopez as A.C. Slater, Tiffany Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski, and Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano.

The show also spawned a few spin-offs, including 19 episodes of Saved by the Bell: The College Years, Saved by the Bell: The New Class which ran for an impressive 7 seasons and 143 episodes (way more than the original did with 4 years, and 86 episodes), two made-for-tv movies, Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style and Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas, and a revival of the same name in 2020 that had 2 seasons and featured Jessie Spano, Ph.D as Bayside High’s school counselor and A.C. Slater as the football coach, as well as cameos from most of the main cast. Oh, and there are 22 official standalone novels and 5 unofficial ones. And a musical.

Anyway, if you watched TV from 1988 to 2021, you’ve probably heard of at least one of the Saved by the Bell works. And as a bonus, we’ll link to a 2015 reunion skit with most of the gang on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Here is a 2016 autobiography from Peter Engle called I Was Saved By the Bell. Engle was the creator and producer of the hit TV show. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher.

Peter Engel, one of the most prolific producers in television with more than 1,000 episodes produced under his banner, single handedly created the teen sitcom with Saved By The Bell, which he executive produced through all of its many incarnations, and which led to his many other teen series. As if defining and conquering the teen arena wasn't enough, Peter produced the iconic Last Comic Standing, enabling the discovery of an entirely new, fresh generation of comedians.
End Quote

Saved by the Bell is also a 2017 book that doesn’t have anything to do with the TV show. This one was written by Jackie Blankenship. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher.

Saved by the Bell picks up where Rescued from the Fire left off. Mary Beth and Liam fell in love as teenagers. Unbeknownst to them, her well-meaning family kept them apart. Both went on to find love with other people, and were later widowed. Providence brought them together again. Will they be able to work through their past and rekindle their love? Or will they harbor resentment and hold onto the lies they've believed for so long?
End Quote

I did find a couple of songs called Saved by the Bell, one from 2018 by Lil Xan and another by Juice WRLD that was recorded in or before 2019 but has not officially been released. It was posthumously leaked in 2023.

Neither of these songs have lyrics that are appropriate for our show, so you can look them up on your own if you are interested. Oh, and in case you have never heard the term posthumous before, it refers to something that happens after the death of the creator.

And to wrap us up, I found this really cool artwork by Gabriel Cristian Matei from Romania. It’s called Saved by the Bell and is a painting, oil on canvas, created in 2023. It features three high school girls in their school uniforms running through a reflecting pond. The work is part of the painting project "We are the next generation". We’ll link to the work on the show notes and on our Patreon,

Wrap Up
I love this phrase. And it’s not just because of my crushes on Kelly Kapowski, Lisa Turtle, and Jessie Spano. I really like the feeling of an intended narrative arc when someone swoops in last-minute with a timely intervention to get me out of some sort of situation. I know our lives don’t really have that kind of narrative arc, but every once in a while, when this happens, I get to pretend like my life is a scripted movie and we just nailed an awesome scene. And every time I say “saved by the bell”, I think that happy thought. And also Kelly Kapowski.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, which do you hate more, dry hands or chapped lips?

The results were 100% behind “I’d rather have dry hands than chapped lips”.
Here was my process as I answer this question.

Wow this is a tough question. I don't want either. Both annoy the hell out of me. But I have blistex and chapstick at my desk, in my car, on my nightstand, and in the pocket of my coat. I even have a lip sunblock in my day bag. I only have lotion on the table by the bedroom door and in my day bag. So I guess that answers it for me. I hate chapped lips.


Heather added:

I can definitively say chapped lips are the WORST.
End Quote

I completely agree on this one. Chapped lips take the win with this one. Somehow, they seem to take much longer to heal and are just terrible.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But they are fun. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.


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