Life for an actual canary in a coal mine could be described in three words: "short but meaningful." Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems, so legend has it that miners would bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled an immediate evacuation.
Even as gas detection technology improved, some mining companies still relied on the canary method well into the 20th century. Other animals were used occasionally, but only the canary had the ability to detect small concentrations of gas and react instinctively.
Today, the practice of using a bird to test the air supply has become part of coal mining lore, but the ideology behind it has become a popular expression. The phrase "living like a canary in a coal mine" often refers to serving as a warning to others. The actual canary had little control over its fate, but it continued to sing anyway. In one sense, living this way indicates a willingness to experience life's dangers without compromise.
In another sense, many business and political analysts use the phrase to describe a harbinger of the future. A melting glacier in Alaska, for example, may be described as a canary in a coal mine for global warming. One small event in an isolated area may not seem especially noteworthy, but it may offer the first tangible warning of a larger problem developing. In a political sense, a country's delegation abruptly leaving a meeting could be described as a canary in a coal mine for future negotiations.
Some large corporations also use a similar strategy for future growth or reduction. A small company may be used to test the waters for a new product line, for instance. Even if the company only experiences modest profits or losses, the parent corporation can evaluate the feasibility of the product without risking a large investment. By carefully observing any early indicators, industries can avoid major failures down the road or benefit from a jump on the competition.
What Is the Origin of Canary in a Coal Mine?
The English language is full of common phrases that may seem confusing if you don't understand their historical background. For example, “canary in a coal mine” sounds ridiculous until you know the context that created it. This idiom's history dates back to the early 20th century.
In the early 1900s, coal mines were active and dangerous places for people to work. While this was a way of life for many, odorless toxins like carbon monoxide and methane threatened the workers' safety. The miners needed a system to alert them of these potential dangers.
Then, a doctor proposed a solution: use an animal that is sensitive to these threats as an alarm system. If the animal got sick or died, the miners would know the conditions had deteriorated and could escape before the mine filled with gas. Canaries were selected, and these small, brightly colored birds became lifesavers to the miners. The rest, as they say, is history.
Did They Really Use Canaries in Coal Mines?
Coal miners needed a way to detect toxic gas quickly. Physician and physiologist John Scott Haldane suggested using a small animal as a detector. Miners needed an animal that required a high dose of oxygen to function while being small enough to transport quickly and easily. While mice would have fit these parameters, leadership decided on the canary. This was due to a few things: their ability to take in oxygen at a higher level than other small animals, their sensitivity to airborne poisons such as carbon monoxide and their tendency to sing while healthy — a built-in auditory warning system.
Looking back with a modern lens, the use of animals as a poison detector may seem inhumane. However, these birds were popular amongst the miners. Their bright songs brought a cheery tone to work, and they became a joy in these dark shafts. In fact, these creatures were so popular that miners would use specialized cages to avoid killing them. Once the canaries showed signs of poisoning, the miners could close the cage, reviving the birds with fresh air from a built-in oxygen tank.
How To Use Canary in the Coal Mine in a Sentence
Despite its dark history, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” has become a common idiom, popular amongst political pundits and scholars alike. Before using it in a sentence, it is necessary to understand what it means. This phrase refers to someone or something that is a harbinger of something bad or dangerous. You can use it to describe a person or situation that demonstrates something worse to come.
When used in a sentence, it works as a noun phrase. Remember to place an article before it when necessary. Look at the following examples for different ways to incorporate it:
- In 2008, the fall of Lehman Brothers was the canary in a coal mine of the economic collapse that would shape the economy of the coming years.
- The student’s silence was just the canary in the coal mine the teacher needed to investigate what was happening.
- Looking at the changing global climate, the rising sea levels and disappearing shorelines are canaries in a coal mine.
- Like canaries in coal mines, the empty shelves warned of supply shortages to come in 2020.
In each example, the warning signs of the threat are indicated and referred to as the canary. The idiom can be placed anywhere in the sentence so long as the relation to the implied threat is clear.
The impact of this phrase on the modern English lexicon is undeniable. Try using it today!