Q: Meaning of "ringer"?

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Wed Dec 10 21:13:03 UTC 2008

On Wed, Dec 10, 2008 at 2:42 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
> Can anyone help me understand the meaning and derivation of "ringer"
> below?  (And is it in the OED?)
> About a series of email messages on an odd question but one which
> caught the fancy of several persons, person A wrote
> >This is like the best of those great weird ringers in old 19th-c.
> >issues of 'Notes & Queries.'
> I asked what "ringer" meant, wondering about the game of horseshoes.
> A replied:
> >The real answer is that I'm probably misusing it, but I always
> >associate it with pub trivia contests in which nobody knows the
> >answer, and in the silence the announcer says, "Okay, that was a ringer."
> So I now wonder, does "ringer" mean "A question [e.g., query in
> _Notes and Queries_] that is extremely esoteric and perhaps will
> achieve no answer"?

Not in OED, but presumably an extension of the sense "An outsider or
intruder; an imposter, spec. one who attaches himself to a political
or other group to which he does not belong."

Scattered usage for "ringer" = 'unanswerable question', 'trick
question', or something similar:

The forth bonus question was a ringer with no answer.
Is it possible for a person to turn things around?
Your question is probably a ringer, but I will pretend it is sincere.
That question was a "ringer" for us old farts (I'm 64).
..you've discovered that spare dice make good beanbag filler.
...you knew that that last question was a ringer: who has more dice
than they can use?
This question is a ringer. It's included in hopes that some
enterprising newspaper or magazine reporter will step up...

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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