false alarm

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false alarm (plural false alarms)

  1. (literally) A warning sound (such as the call of sentry, the ringing of a bell, or the shriek of a siren) which turns out to have been erroneous.
    • 1895, G. A. Henty, chapter 9, in Wulf the Saxon:
      "Then, if they rise, shout the alarm at the top of your voice [] but be careful not to rouse the camp by a false alarm, for if you do, instead of gaining credit we shall become the jest of the whole force."
    • 2013 Feb. 25, David Epstein, "Pistorius: The Man, The Myth," Sports Illustrated (retrieved 18 April 2015):
      Pistorius explained that a security alarm in his house had gone off the previous night, and that he had taken a gun downstairs to investigate what turned out to be a false alarm.
  2. (idiomatic, by extension) A thing or occurrence which initially causes fear, distress, etc. but which is subsequently recognized as being no cause for concern.
    • 1819, Sir Walter Scott, chapter 13, in Ivanhoe:
      John then opened the billet with apparent agitation, which visibly and greatly increased when he had perused the contents []
      "This may be a false alarm, or a forged letter," said De Bracy.
    • 1905, Fergus Hume, chapter 6, in The Secret Passage:
      Cuthbert had often been summoned to her dying bed, only to find that she was alive and well. He expected that this summons would be another false alarm.
    • 2000 Jan. 9, "A Night To Remember," Newsweek (retrieved 18 April 2015):
      Robert Swanson [] expected civilization to melt down on Jan. 1, 2000 [] He's not sure yet that Y2K was a false alarm.
  3. (archaic, idiomatic) A person who pretends to be more accomplished or a thing that seems to be of higher quality than is later found to be the case.
    • 1911, William MacLeod Raine, chapter 22, in Mavericks:
      "I don't believe you're a bank robber, at all! I don't believe you are even a rustler! You're a false alarm!"
    • 1912, G. Harvey Ralphson, chapter 2, in Boy Scouts in a Submarine:
      "He's an old false alarm, anyway. I'll bet he never heard a real gun go off!"
    • 1913, Rex Ellingwood Beach, chapter 5, in The Iron Trail:
      "I had a good job, putting in a power plant for his nibs"—he indicated the retreating Gordon with a disrespectful jerk of the thumb—"but I quit [] Do you think I'd work for this four-flusher if you were in the country?" []
      "You think Gordon is a false alarm?"
    • 1921, P. G. Wodehouse, chapter 4, in Jill the Reckless:
      "I only came over here to see that darned false alarm of a play of mine put on."
    Antonym: real deal


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