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What's the first word that comes to your mind when you see this? Also, please mention if British, US or another variant.

enter image description here

As someone who didn't grow up in an English-speaking country, I really have no idea what to call these, and Wikipedia lists altogether too many names for them.

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    "life preserver". NJ, USA – nanny Feb 25 '15 at 14:34
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    The website of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) returned results for lifebuoy (not hyphenated); life ring, and life belt. It did not return any results for life preserver, which I think should be considered American. if I'm ever drowning I shall not be the least concerned about what anyone calls it, so long as they throw me one! – WS2 Feb 25 '15 at 14:41
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    "lifesaver". MD, USA. Almost always heard with "throw", as in "She threw him a lifesaver". Also, hence the name of the candy. (To me, "life preserver" = "life jacket" = a thing you put on as a precaution, not something that generally gets tossed to you after the fact.) – Hellion Feb 25 '15 at 14:43
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    In Britain a life-saver is a term given to a person who saves lives. see this: rnli.org/NewsCentre/Pages/… – WS2 Feb 25 '15 at 14:46
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    @WS2 nice try, but LifeSavers candy was invented in 1912 in Ohio. Your Polo Mints are but a pale imitation. ;-p – Hellion Feb 25 '15 at 17:01
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A lifebelt is a common way to call it:

  • A life preserver worn like a belt.

also:

  • A lifebuoy, ring buoy, lifering, lifesaver, life donut, life preserver or lifebelt, also known as a "kisby ring" or "perry buoy", is a life saving buoy designed to be thrown to a person in the water, to provide buoyancy and prevent drowning. Some modern lifebuoys are fitted with one or more seawater-activated lights, to aid rescue at night.

Lifebelt is more common in BrE while life preserver in more common in AmE (see Ngram).

Ngram BrE NgramAmE

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It is a bit complicated, and no doubt varies from region to region. In the US, I'd expect it to most often be called a lifebuoy, though life ring might also be used, as well as life preserver.

But life preserver is also commonly used to refer to a life jacket (see image below) and if you're wearing a life jacket you don't have such an urgent need for a lifebuoy.

Life jackets

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    It must be regional (within the US); I've never in my life heard lifebuoy. I'm frankly not even 100% sure how to say it—boo-ee? Bwoy? Boy? I've only heard life preserver, and would not use that term for a life jacket. Fwiw, I'm from Michigan (also lived in LA for a decade, and now live in a plains state, but probably have mostly used these terms in Michigan). – 1006a Jan 17 '17 at 1:46
  • @1006a - "Lifebuoy" is quite simply "life" followed by "buoy". (I've lived in Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, and Minnesota. Quite a lot of sailing for about 15 years in Minnesota.) – Hot Licks Jan 17 '17 at 1:53
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    @1006a There is a transatlantic difference in the pronunciation of the word 'buoy'. Over here we pronounce it as 'boy' (it is related to the word 'buoyant') but you guys seem to prefer 'booy'. By the way there has been from 1895 a carbolic soap called lifebuoy originally made in the UK. I think more people in the UK (at least of a certain age) would think of the soap than the lifebelt when faced with the word 'lifebuoy' which we seem to have replaced by 'lifebelt'. – BoldBen Jan 17 '17 at 7:54
  • Thanks, @BoldBen, I think that's probably the source of my confusion. I know I looked up the pronunciation at one point years ago, but there were enough variants listed that it didn't help much, and I haven't used/heard it in conversation consistently enough to have a natural default. – 1006a Jan 17 '17 at 21:43
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I nominate lifesaver. Not only is this object the precise one described under the fourth definition in the American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition (©2016), but it is commonly enough known that there is a popular brand name of hardcandies named after it, so named because of the thick ring shape. You can see an advertisement for Pep-o-Mint Lifesavers on page 510 of Life Magazine, Volume 74, Issue 1925, which was published in 1919:

This is a picture of the advertisement which shows a customer buying lifesavers from a merchant in the upper left corner, and an open package of lifesavers showing the ring shaped candy in the lower right. A prominent part of the advertisement is the Lifesavers logo, followed by text reading "The Candy Mint with The Hole", with the o stylized in the shape of the candy.

Aside from showing how the shape of the candy resembles its namesake, I doubt a word can be much more colloquial or well known than a century old candy that remains popular to this day, although these days lifesavers are usually fruit flavored rather than minty.

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