To act like the canary in the coal mine - Idiom

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Dec 22, 2006.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    "To act like the canary in the coal mine" is an idiomatic expression referring to the literal sense and situation of the canaries that were used in coald mines.

    As I understand, canaries were used, in the 19th C and early 20th C, in coal mines, not as pets or to keep company to the miners, but as zoological early-warning systems for toxic gases or fumes. Canaries being tiny birds would choke and die earlier than a man would. In other words, when the canary was off-colour, all hands knew that trouble was brewing and that they should take action (i.e. escape).

    But I would like details as to how the metaphorical expression is used, i.e. what is implied precisely. Is it merely to act as whistle-blower? Is there the idea that one is being misused or abused? (The canaries did not ask to be stuck underground like that.) Is it positive (about the person seen as a canary) or rather negative (since he or she may be deemed a bit of a fool)? Is there any reference to the colour? (At first, I thought it was the idea of "the black sheep" since, supposedly, a yellow canary in a dark black coal mine would stand out, somehow.)

    Insight welcome and Xmas greetings from me.
  2. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Hi James,

    You are correct in your explanation. As I understand it, canaries would die of methane gas, before miners could detect it.

    How is the expression used today? In AE, it is used very infrequently. It's generally understood, but I can't remember reading it in current literature or hearing it in years.

    Rather than having positive or negative connotations, I think it just means that something is an early warning sign of trouble.
  3. MissFit

    MissFit Senior Member

    I suppose "to act like a canary in a coal mine" might mean to be the person who ventures first into a dangerous situation as a test case. Here's an example: The boss in the office has had a very bad day--for several days in a row. He is extremely ill-tempered and everyone is afraid to go into his office to ask him for anything--even for an answer to a simple question--for fear of being yelled at or making him angrier. They elect the newest member of the staff to be the first to go in to talk to the boss. If he doesn't get yelled at or fired, the rest of the staff will know it's safe for them to go in. He is acting as the canary in a coal mine.

    "Whistle-blower" is not the same thing. A whistle-blower is a person who reports to government authorities when his employer is violating the law. It can also be a person who reports to his employer when his supervisor is breaking company policy, stealing, etc.
  4. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I had never heard the expression at all until very recently. I believe it was in an article in a newspaper in fact. A search on the web told me that it was "for real": at first I assumed it was purely metaphorical. What would a canary do in a coal mine? So, I was even more surprised to find out that canaries were used in coal mines in the old days!

    I understand the meaning that is implied from MissFit's post: you are testing the water on behalf of others, really. So, not the meaning of blowing the whistle, clearly.
  5. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    According to the BBC, 'the old days' weren't so long ago:

  6. Vikorr Senior Member

    Australia, English
    The only time I have ever heard of it being used : Firemen have referred to police officers as 'canaries'...because said police officers often go (unwittingly / without knowledge) into dangerous situations (like gas leaks, major fuel leaks etc) where firemen would stop and put on breathing apparatus.
  7. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I would not say the expression is common. I have personally come across it only once in my - already not so short - life...

    It is amazing such "technology" was used till the mid-80s, i.e. pretty much until the end of the coal-mining era in the UK. (Mining declined sharply after 1980 approximately, also because of the policy pursued by the Thatcher government at the time.)

    The idiomatic meaning appears to imply that the person playing the part of the canary is being sacrificed, if I understand correctly - something also conveyed by the Australian contributor's post.
  8. wenger230 Banned

    Now a canary in the coal mine just means a monitor, something present to indicate danger. The canary was used in coal mines to indicate to miners the quality of the air they were were breathing. If the canary was silent or died, they would know the air was bad. It began in a literal sense.
  9. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I don't think it is an idiom, or an idiomatic expression, because all the words are used in their everyday sense, and the meaning of the phrase is exactly what one would expect from the everyday senses of the words.

    I would say rather that the idea of the canary in the coal mine was a meme or a conventional metaphor. In my experience it is a very common one, and there are lots of examples on the internet, a lot of them used in the the context of environmental concerns.
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2010
  10. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    Support se16teddy. The "canary in the coal mine" is any living thing whose death or debilitation signals a problem that humans haven't been looking for or would have difficulty detecting on their own. Bleaching coral are a "canary in the coal mine" for global warming or oceanic pollution. Just as the death of a canary in a coal mine does not indicate specifically what gas is rising (it could be methane, but perhaps it's carbon monoxide), just that the environment has deterioriated and the human miners will be overcome next, the reduction in numbers or extinction of a species may signal an environmental change that humans will find uncongenial. All those amphibians that have recently gone extinct are "canaries in the a mine."
  11. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines an idiom as "a group of words established by usage and having a meaning not deductible from those of the individual words", and they give the example of "over the moon", i.e., not, literally, "over the moon", you see.

    Strictly speaking, then, and if one knows about mining, the expression probably is not an idiom. But, as people use it who know nothing about its origin and about mining, in a metaphorical sense, I would have thought it tended towards the idiomatic.

    If we say "dying corals off the coast of Australia are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to global warming", it is not exactly literal in meaning, is it?

    That the meaning would be well-established, fair enough; that you hear it all the time - I would not say so. Not where I am sitting anyway.
  12. kalamazoo Senior Member

    US, English
    I think it's a reasonably common expression. I would understand it to refer to some kind of warning sign for a problem that's just going to become more severe quite shortly, not to an individual being "sent in" to test a problematic situation. I would regard it as more a metaphor than a true idiom, off-hand.
  13. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    That is one of the definitions - not all "idioms" have the characteristic of being "not deducible from the individual words". Think of expressions that might be grammatically correct but sound odd to native ears - these are called non-idiomatic. The opposite of that is, well, idiomatic.
  14. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    Some of us do hear or read it quite frequently, however. A search for "canary in the coal mine" in context finds 78 instances of its use in news media over the past month (as of today).

    Here is an earlier discussion of the same allusion, also from the news: the canary in the coal mine

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