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Language Arts

Graveyard Shift

Although Graveyard Shift may be commonly known for the shift a person may work, the origin of the popular term is less definite. To further our series on popular terms and sayings here on, we are exploring the possible origins of graveyard shift.

Many know the term Graveyard Shift to mean the job shift someone works usually from the hours of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. or some variations of those nightly hours. However, where the "graveyard" part came into play in describing the type of shift has been speculated over the years. Some scholars believe the popular expression "to work the graveyard shift" was used to describe the person who was in charge of overseeing the graves at night in the graveyard. The reason for this responsibility is because in England during the 1500s, cemeteries were often dug up to allow for more space for building. Sometimes old graves would be dug up and scratch marks would be found on the inside top of the coffin indicating that the person had been buried alive. According to unfounded statistics, a supposed one out of 25 people were buried alive during this time as a result of poor medical technology.  As a result, cemetery workers would be assigned to sit in the graveyard at night to keep watch on the graves, which were designed to have a bell connected by a string to the dead person's finger. If the cemetery person working the "graveyard shift" heard the bell, they would know the person was alive and they would be able to save the person from being buried alive.  This person was essentially "saved by the bell" or was called a "dead ringer," which are two other popular phrases or sayings supposedly derived from this old practice that are still used as common sayings today. 

However, there are some that believe there were not many coffins actually built that way during the 1500s, so it was an unlikely situation. Some scholars believe the term graveyard shift was more simply derived to explain the shift a person works at night while everything is quiet and lonely, much like the atmosphere of a cemetery, or graveyard. One of the earliest forms of print to use the popular term "graveyard shift" was found in the newspaper The Salt Lake Tribune, in June 1897: "The police changed shifts for the month yesterday. This month Sergeant Ware takes the morning relief. Sergeant Matt Rhodes the middle and Sergeant John Burbidge the graveyard shift."


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