Canary/Coal Mine (1913, 1976)

Tue Nov 11 23:42:11 UTC 2003

        According to this web page,, canaries have been taken into coal mines since 1911.  The figurative use apparently dates back at least to Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1965, by Kurt Vonnegut, who turns 81 today.  Vonnegut wrote of the artist's being the equivalent in society of the canary carried into the coal mine.  It's obviously a versatile analogy that can be turned to many uses, the ecology being a favorite.  I gather that mice were sometimes used instead of canaries, but nobody ever talks about the mouse in the coal mine; I don't know if the miners themselves developed a preference for canaries, or if canaries just make a catchier analogy.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: Bapopik at AOL.COM [mailto:Bapopik at AOL.COM]
Sent: Tuesday, November 11, 2003 6:04 PM
Subject: Canary/Coal Mine (1913, 1976); Shirley Temple (sort of 1946);
Sneak Preview (1932)


   From Mark Steyn in yesterday's  NEW YORK SUN, 10 November 2003, pg. 8, col. 5:

   At present demographic rates, by 2020 the majority of children in Holland--i.e., the population under 18--will be Muslim.  What do you figure that 74% will be up to by then--85%--96%?  If Americans think it's difficult getting the Continentals on their side now, wait another decade.  In that sense, the Israelis are the canaries in the coal mine.

   I thought William Safire did this, but I can't locate it easily.  It's not in OED?

      Canaries and Coal Mines.
              Wall Street Journal  (1889-Current file).       New York, N.Y.: Nov 14, 1913.                   p. 2 (1 page)

Politics as Bad Fiction
       WILLIAM GREIDER.       The Washington Post  (1974-Current file).       Washington, D.C.: Oct 31, 1976.                   p. 35 (1 page):
   KURT VONNEGUT, the novelist, once said that artists in a society are like the canaries they used to take down in coal mines to check for poisonous gases.  When the canaries start keeling over, you know the society is in trouble.

More information about the Ads-l mailing list