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
  15. Bushroe New Member

    English - United States
    Apologies for the drive by but my understanding of the expression seems to be different from everyone else's and I just wanted to add it to the list to be considered.

    I agree partially se17teddy that there is a meme or common memory of taking canaries into coal mines because it is so dangerous there.

    However, I also believe that when stated above, "To act like the canary in the coal mine" it means that the person or object is being deliberately placed in greater danger than anyone / anything else with the express purpose of it being damaged, destroyed, killed before the risk becomes to great for everyone / everything else, and that if it is a person or living thing, it does not know it is being offered up as a sacrificial offering to protect everyone else. I believe that the idiomatic part of the meaning of the expression is that the person / living thing is not aware of its greater danger.

    The canary has no idea or understanding that its job is to die to warn everyone else to leave. In the above example the coral also neither knows nor understands why it is a much greater risk than anyone else, and even though no one forced it into the role, it is still acting like the canary in a coal mine by being injured or killed before conditions become to deadly for the people watching it know that bad things are coming. When the expression is used for a person or group it probably means that they are not aware of their increased risk, and that someone else set them up for that as an early warning system for themselves.

    I believe that a weaker interpretation of the idiom is someone or something acting as an early warning system by suffering what ever change everyone is worried about.
  16. dojibear Senior Member

    Fresno CA
    English - America
    You have the expression wrong. The words "To act like" do not belong there. If you Google "act like the canary in the coal mine" all of the answers (except a link to this thread) are for "canary in a/the coal mine", without "act like".

    From the 1950s until today I have heard the expression "canary in the/a coal mine" thousands of times. But I have never heard it with "to act like" in it. The expression is not about a person acting as a mine canary.

    Mine canaries were "sensitive natural gas sensors" before that technology existed. The expression "the canary in the coal mine" means a very early warning of danger. It is used in many contexts.

    For example, a business partner considering a deal with another company might say "That one error in their balance sheet was the canary in the coal mine. It tipped us off that something wasn't right." Later they discovered the other company was committing fraud. They were lucky to have refused the business deal.
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017
  17. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Dojibear has a point, having re-read this Thread: I believe he is right in saying that the original expression is 'to be the canary in the coal mine' and not 'to act as the canary in the coal mine', but I suppose there may have been linguistic mission creep, as it were, whereby the fate of the canary has, implicitly, become the focus (and whether it knew what was coming to it or not...), as opposed to, merely, the notion of an early-warning system (regardless of what the canary knows, thinks or does!).

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