What Does It Mean to Be a "Canary in a Coal Mine"?
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!
Awesome way of putting it.
Pretty ridiculous that you can describe a term these days without incorporating liberal propaganda.
Manmade global warming has already been disproved! Look at theory yourself. The 2001 IPCC scientists predicted that the Earth would get exponentially warmer. We know for a fact that it's not. If you have basic math and science skills, look at the facts for yourself and stop believing the lies.
Read the theory. Read their predicted temperatures. Look at the actual temperatures. They're not even close!
Next time you are in a store selling Teflon pans, read the fine print. Do not heat one up 'too high' with your birds in the room. They will die.
This was not long ago. The last canary in a coal mine was retired in the mid-1980s in the United Kingdom, albeit with a Hi-Tech cage where the floor of the cage had several pressure sensors. When the canary became restless this was picked up by the sensors (the bird hopped incessantly) and an alarm was raised.
@Fa5t3r - I like the idea of that, but in reality it wouldn't have been very often. Coal miners back then were extremely tough men. They worked in brutal, often fatal conditions (which is illustrated by the possible use of the canaries).
On top of lax safety standards and back breaking labor, they weren't paid more than a pittance. There's a reason the generation of people who worked in the mines have been compared to slaves (although obviously, it wasn't the same).
I'm not saying it isn't possible that a coal miner might take pity on the canary, but to him, I'm sure it would be another mouth to feed and he might not be able to afford even the small amount it would take to buy a new canary.
@anon191036 - Everybody has to learn what it means from somewhere. And this is obviously a biased sample. People wouldn't be looking up an article explaining the phrase if they knew what it means.
I'd never heard the term "living like a canary in a coal mine" before. I actually quite like the idea of that, someone being cheerful and optimistic even though they have no control over their fate. I wonder how often the men became attached to the canary bird, because of its optimism, and it ended up being left permanently at home with their children?
Seriously? This many people didn't know what this meant? The human race is doomed.
There's a song by The Police called "Canary in a coal mine."
In this world the canary is used unwittingly. In the nuclear world who is going to be the canary? --John B
Glenn Beck (who is such an intelligent and insightful educator and entertainer) used this phrase recently. I found your website with the meaning. Thank you!
Glen Beck (whom I hate) used this cliche' on FOX and I looked you up. Thanks for knowledge.
Thank you very much!
Excellent and concise!
I'm surprised that PETA isn't all upset about this!
compare with recent use of Bluegill fish in North American cities, since potential the risk of water contamination following 9/11 attack.
So helpful. Thanks!
Having heard this saying before, I have to say that the explanation here is being wrongfully optimistic. The actual usage as I've always known it was to imply that one is being used as an unwitting subject to test the potential risk, solely for the benefit of others.
Think of it more like this: being forced to march ahead of a group across a field potentially containing land mines. Doesn't sound quite so positive, does it?
"The canary had the ability to detect small concentrations of gas and react instinctively?" Translation: if the canary suffocated, poisonous gases had leaked into the mine.
So interesting! Thanks!
thanks. it helped a lot.
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This is the best explanation. i have learned a lot. thank you.
Very helpful article for understanding the term 'canary in a coal mine'. Thank you.
thanks - very helpful
Very nice explanation. I visit this website every now and then. It always been very informative to me. Thank you.
I think by "react instinctively" they mean stop singing. Not dying. They stop singing a little while before death sets in.
Always wondered what this meant. Thanks for this enlightening article.
canary in a coal mine, what about a flea in a circus, a goldfish in a bowl, the blind pit pony, not forgetting the ones we eat. Don't feel to sorry for the canary although to be born into the tropics and end up in pit well wouldn't be long before you stopped singing anyway.
Very good and informative article! There's only one problem I see with it - I wouldn't call the canary's death "reacting instinctively" :P
Wow- this article helped me with homework, and is VERY clear! Great job!
This article most clearly explained "canary in a coal mine" to me; better than other websites.
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