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What Does It Mean to be a "Canary in a Coal Mine"?

Canary.
"Canary in a coal mine" refers to an early safety measure taken by coal miners.
Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2014
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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.

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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.

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Discuss this Article

anon953311
Post 49

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.

anon350926
Post 46

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.

croydon
Post 43

@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.

Fa5t3r
Post 42

@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?

anon191036
Post 38

Seriously? This many people didn't know what this meant? The human race is doomed.

anon135597
Post 35

There's a song by The Police called "Canary in a coal mine."

anon134078
Post 34

In this world the canary is used unwittingly. In the nuclear world who is going to be the canary? --John B

anon132947
Post 33

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!

anon125206
Post 32

Glen Beck (whom I hate) used this cliche' on FOX and I looked you up. Thanks for knowledge.

anon89597
Post 30
anon84426
Post 29

Thank you very much!

anon76044
Post 28

Excellent and concise!

anon74658
Post 27

I'm surprised that PETA isn't all upset about this!

anon66650
Post 26

compare with recent use of Bluegill fish in North American cities, since potential the risk of water contamination following 9/11 attack.

anon55678
Post 25

So helpful. Thanks!

anon55243
Post 23

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.

anon50590
Post 22

So interesting! Thanks!

anon46699
Post 21

thanks. it helped a lot.

anon45514
Post 20

thank you! this information was very helpful!

anon44000
Post 19

This is the best explanation. i have learnt a lot. thank you.

anon40406
Post 17

Very helpful article for understanding the term 'canary in a coal mine'. Thank you.

anon37372
Post 16

thanks - very helpful

anon36666
Post 15

Very nice explanation. I visit this website every now and then. It always been very informative to me. Thank you.

anon28100
Post 13

Perfect Enlightenment.

anon23048
Post 12

I think by "react instinctively" they mean stop singing. Not dying. They stop singing a little while before death sets in.

anon22850
Post 11

Always wondered what this meant. Thanks for this enlightening article.

anon18087
Post 9

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.

anon9429
Post 7

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

anon6678
Post 6

Wow- this article helped me with homework, and is VERY clear! Great job!

anon4206
Post 2

This article most clearly explained "canary in a coal mine" to me; better than other websites.

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