1

I get really annoyed when I hear "Safety Deposit Box" - to me, the thing the box is deposited in is a Safe, not a Safety. Is my annoyance justified? Why do people say "Safety" when it's both harder to say, and wrong?

Background: I'm a native English speaker over 40. I never heard the term "Safety" when I was younger, but today, I've seen both terms used in banks selling the service. I've seen both terms printed on signs, but I'm sure "Safety" is wrong. I just can't explain why.

  • It's not a deposit box that's a safe, like it's a safe/deposit box. It's a box intended for safe deposit, for a deposit that is safe. It's a "safe-deposit box" -- note the hyphen. Safe is an adjective. – Malvolio Nov 17 '14 at 23:55
  • No, Safe is a noun - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe - it is the place where the box is deposited. – Jasmine Nov 18 '14 at 0:05
  • It's just a common error, which sounds almost right so people keep saying it. – curiousdannii Nov 18 '14 at 0:10
  • 2
    @Malvolio If safe is an adjective hence safe-deposit box, how did the safety pin and safety razor get their names? Why not a safe pin and a safe razor? I'm not arguing with you, I think you are right but I am just curious about the pin and the razor. – WS2 Nov 18 '14 at 0:16
  • 4
    I have certainly heard "safety deposit box" many times in my 65 years of monitoring the speech habits of Americans. I'm vaguely recalling that that form predominated 50 years ago or so. – Hot Licks Nov 18 '14 at 1:44
4

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists the term under safe-deposit box, and reports a first-occurrence date of 1874:

safe-deposit box n (1874) : a box (as in the vault of a bank) for safe storage of valuables — called also safety-deposit box

The Ngram chart for safe deposit box (blue line) versus safety deposit box (red line) across the years 1850–2000 shows a consistent advantage for the former over the years, but both forms are alive and well overall:

*

I suspect that there may be some unidentified difference in regional preference at play here, too: In Texas, when I was growing up there in the 1960s, the term I remember hearing was safety-deposit box; but if that term is standard there, it must be considerably less common than safe-deposit box in other parts of the English-speaking world.


UPDATE: Identifiable locations of early occurrences of the two terms

Many of the earliest occurrences of safe deposit box and safety deposit box in a Google Books search involve court cases, municipal documents, and other localized reports. To see what geographical patterns (if any) these early occurrences fell into, I ran a search for all Google Books occurrences of safe deposit box between 1850 and 1905 and of safety deposit box between 1850 and 1907. Here's how the geographically identifiable results from the two sets of matches were distributed (with the date range for the occurrences in parentheses):

safe deposit box: New York (1870–1905): 34, Pennsylvania (1893–1904): 11, New Jersey (1899–1903): 3, Washington state (1900–1902): 3, Missouri (1889 & 1901): 2, Connecticut (1903 & 1904): 2, Washington, D.C. (1904 & 1905): 2, Illinois (1898): 1, Ohio (1901): 1, Maryland (1904): 1, California (1904): 1

safety deposit box: Illinois (1888–1906): 10, New York (1896–1907): 9, Michigan (1892–1905): 4, Virginia (1895–1906): 4, Ohio (1892–1907): 4, Massachusetts (1892–1906): 3, Wisconsin (1898–1907): 3, Alabama (1901–1906): 3, Missouri (1898 & 1900): 2, Washington state (1900 twice): 2, Iowa (1895): 1, Minnesota (1896): 1, New Hampshire (1899): 1, Pennsylvania (1903): 1, Nevada (1907): 1, Utah (1907): 1

The results for this very early period are quite skimpy, but they do indicate that virtually all instances of either term through 1905 occurred in the United States. Within the United States, the hotbed of safe deposit box appears to have been in the region from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut—and especially New York—with a sprinkling of outliers in the Midwest (Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio) and on the Pacific Coast (Washington state and California).

The greatest concentrations of safety deposit box between 1850 and 1907 were in Illinois and in New York (where instances of the term were far outnumbered by instances of safe deposit box), but individual occurrences pop up (in tiny numbers) across parts of New England (Massachusetts and New Hampshire), the South (Virginia and Alabama), and the states of the U.S. interior (from Utah to Ohio), especially in the northern Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan).

The numbers are too small to support any confident generalization, but it is interesting to see how widely dispersed safety deposit box was by 1907, given that the commercial center of the United States (New York) showed a strong preference for safe deposit box.


UPDATE: First occurrence in Google Books search results

The first occurrence of safe deposit box that a Google Books search finds is from the record of court testimony (cross examination of Thomas Morrison) on March 3, 1870 in the case of Jerome Bradley v State of New York, reported in [New York] Court of Appeals (1870):

I could not tell how many securities and Government bonds were in that box (which was normally kept "at the New York Safe Deposit, corner of Broadway and Liberty street"]. We put all our securities into our safe box ; we have a book that we make a record in of them, and this identical bond is one of those numbers. I think that the clerical record in that book was made by myself, but I am not positive. Mr. Hoyt was a former partner of mine, and in settling his interest in the firm we turned over to him quite an amount of five-twenty coupon bonds ; he sold those bonds and bought registered bonds ; he handed the registered bonds to me for the purpose of putting them into our Safe Deposit box. I think before putting those bonds in the Safe Deposit box that I made a record of them myself.

So the first occurrence of Safe Deposit box refers to a box for holding valuable possessions kept at the New York Safe Deposit bank in New York City. It seems very possible that the term safe deposit box used by William H. Butler of Brooklyn, New York, in his patent filing of July 28, 1874, for "certain new and useful Improvements in Safe Deposit Boxes" owes the wording of its name to the boxes already in use at the New York Safe Deposit. Butler's filing refers to "improvements in the construction of the small pigeon-hole boxes used in safe-deposit institutions." It then remarks:

The old method of making safe-deposit boxes was to form a section of pigeon-holes with shelves and partitions, held together by knees or angle-iron ...

It thus appears that safe-deposit box may already have been a standard term in New York by 1874, if not by 1870. At the very least, it is clear that boxes designed to slide into secure pigeon holes in a bank vault existed prior to Butler's 1874 patent.

  • AmE vs BrE – choster Nov 18 '14 at 1:32
  • 2
    i.e. NGram doesn't show a US/UK difference. Safety deposit box was in an 1886 U.S. patent application. Both phrases seem to pop up everywhere in Google Books. – choster Nov 18 '14 at 1:34
  • @choster: As my update on first occurrence of the term safe deposit box details, that term may owe its particular wording to a bank in New York City called the New York Safe Deposit. I wondered whether Chicago might have hosted comparable institutions with the word Safety (instead of Safe)—and it did, including Safety Deposit Fund Life Insurance Company (which discontinued business in 1884), North Chicago Safety Deposit Vaults (opened in 1897), and Deposit People's Safety Deposit Company and Stockyards and Safety Deposit Company (both of which opened for business in 1904). – Sven Yargs Nov 18 '14 at 4:02
  • Interesting. Had the companies survived, I wonder, would we group Safe(ty) Deposit Box with the likes of the Crescent® wrench or Dry Ice™? – choster Nov 18 '14 at 4:21
  • I completely garbled the words "Deposit People's Safety Deposit Company and Stockyards and Safety Deposit Company," which should have been "People's Safety Deposit Company and Stockyards Safety Deposit Company." Sorry about the terrible quality control on that comment. – Sven Yargs Nov 18 '14 at 5:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.