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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.

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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.


Update (March 5, 2024): An interesting antecedent of "safe deposit box" appears in Robert St. Clar, The Metropolites: or Know Thy Neighbor: A Novel (1864):

"But now for more important matters," said he, as he rose and secured the doors against interruption. Opening a secret recess in the wall, concealed ingeniously in a panel, he drew forth from this safe deposit box after box, small in size, but bound with brass bands and rivets of great strength. Unlocking one of these, he took out a case containing several miniatures of ladies. One was set in diamonds, and sparkled brilliantly in the dim light to which it was exposed. ...

Here the recessed hideaway in the wall is referred to as a "safe deposit," and the containers in it are termed simply boxes. To my eyes, the striking usage here isn't "boxes' but "safe deposit."

As for "safety deposit box," instances of that form of the term go back at least as far as 1873. From an advertisement for Keystone Bank of Phliadelphia, Pennsylvania, in Friends' Intelligencer (March 29, 1873):

KEYSTONE BANK,

Chestnut Street, opposite United States Mint,

Allows Interest on Time Deposits, and 5 per cent Interest on Deposits to SAVINGS FUND, Subject to Draft at One Week's Notice. For Rent, at moderate rates, Improved SAFETY DEPOSIT BOXES in Fire and Thief Proof Vaults.

From "Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Session of the Southern Baptist Convention, Held with the Coliseum Place Baptist Church in New Oeleans, La., May 10, 11 and 12, 1877" (1877):

Less : paid rent of safety deposit box, for safe-keeping of bonds-------------[$]124[.]48

From "Report of the Auditor of Public Accounts for the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1877–78. Document No. II. Statement showing amount of Warrants drawn upon the Treasury from 1st October, 1877, to 30th September, 1878, inclusive." (1878):

Contingent expenses of office of auditor of public accounts:

...

Safety deposit box......................... [$]20[.]00

And from "The Triennial Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1876 of Harvard College" (1879):

August. Equitable Safety Deposit Box [$]10[.]00

These instances indicate that "safety deposit box" is very nearly as old as "safe deposit box"—from 1874 versus from 1870. The regional locus of the "safety" variant is unclear, as examples from the period 1874–1879 appear in publications from Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

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  • AmE vs BrE
    – choster
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 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
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 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
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 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
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 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
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 5:14
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Neither variant sounds especially appetising to my ears, but I agree 'safe deposit box' makes more sense semantically. These things are kept in vaults†, and security rather than safety springs to mind as the key issue. However, the expression 'keep something safe' is also primarily about security, so there is overlap.

† An alternative name is 'vault deposit box', which obviously has two (cumulative) attributive nouns, [vault [deposit box]]. A deposit box kept in a vault.

When it comes to deciding correctness, though, descriptive arguments must outweigh prescriptiveness. And the Google 3-grams given by Sven show that a very sizable minority use the arguably less logical variant, making it acceptable.

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Well, my theory is as follows: The correct usage is safe-deposit box. When people used the term, they would say safety as in “safe de” as the word “deposit” comes after “safe”. In essence, safe de deposit.

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