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Where does the expression "rings a bell" come from?


Bob: Have we met before?

Geoff: Well, your face rings a bell.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

According to Etymonline:

To ring a bell "awaken a memory" (1934) is perhaps a reference to Pavlovian experiments.

Here's an excerpt from that last linked page:

Pavlov became interested in studying reflexes when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus. Although no food was in sight, their saliva still dribbled. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.

In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.

Another possible origin is the one this page advocates:

There are many bells that ring to remind or instruct us to do things: doorbell (open the door), telephone bell (pick up the phone), school bell (come to class), toaster bell (take out the toast), and the clothes dryer bell (take out the clothes). So, if something such as a face, a name, a number, or a date "rings a bell," it causes you to remember something.

To counter the tiresomely inaccurate Google Ngrams, I've decided to do some research using the COHA corpus:

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The first idiomatic usage listed dates from 1941:

Next time they hear the name Sammy Glick it rings a bell in their brains.

I googled the phrase, and the only result (Google books) was the link to Budd Schulberg's 1941 short story.

To my way of thinking, the in their brains is significant in determining the age of the phrase. It sounds a lot like the phrase was new at the time, since the writer felt the need to explain it a little.

By the next usage listed, in 1943, rings a bell was used as it is today, with no quantifier phrase. After these instances, the idiomatic usage occurs often.

Another point in the Pavlov theory's favor is the fact that the number of occurrences jumps after the 1930s. I tested the corpus by searching for the word "the":

enter image description here

While 1810 and 1820 had much smaller numbers (69742 and 433985), the number for each decade resides pretty consistently between a million and one and a half million instances. This shows the extent of the corpus.

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Not convinced by the Pavlov theory, I'm afraid. Seems a bit of a stretch to think that these experiments with dogs and food penetrated into general society enough to create a common phrase. –  Urbycoz Mar 14 '12 at 12:54
On the contrary, that experiment was very popular among laymen, and still is. Most people know about Pavlov. –  Daniel Mar 14 '12 at 12:56
Neither proposal makes much sense to me. Pavlov's bell didn't remind dogs that they were hungry, it informed them that food was available. Similarly, a door bell doesn't remind someone that he needs to open the door, it informs him of something he didn't previously know. That said, I don't suppose that an idiom has to really make sense. The ever-popular Ngram shows the phrase "rings a bell" used before 1830, but without context I don't know if it's in that sense or literal. It does increase dramatically in the 1830s, which would be an argument in favor of the Pavlov theory. –  Jay Mar 14 '12 at 13:43
@Daniel. That's not what I meant. Sure, we all know about Pavlov and his experiments, but I don't see why that would cause a phrase to come into common usage. And why would experiments about dogs responding to stimuli signalling food lead to the creation of the phrase "rings a bell"- what happened to the "dogs" and "food" parts? –  Urbycoz Mar 14 '12 at 14:19
@Urbycoz: If you Ngrams "like one of Pavlov's dogs," you'll get 4000+ pages of results, showing the phrase used in a wide variety of contexts. Maybe "common" is too strong a word, but Pavlov's experiment has indeed clawed its way into the vernacular nonetheless. Maybe you have heard it said before, but it's just not ringing a bell (that's a mere quip to get our side-discussion back on topic). –  J.R. Mar 15 '12 at 9:51

Bells such as the type used in churches are large and loud. Their sound can be heard from a great distance. Bells sound a single, clear note so their sound is distinctive and not easily confused. Before electric sirens and amplification systems, bells were a valuable means of signaling people and alerting of important events.

Further, accurate timepieces were not always as available as they are today. Bells were used to signal people of the start of events such as a church session, the start of school, or a celebration. The bells acted as a reminder of the start of the event for people who had an out of synch timepiece or no timepiece. Someone would literally ring a bell as a reminder.

As an aside bells were later used on clocks to mark the hour. A large clock usually in the town square could be heard throughout the town. This clock acted as a master time reference for the town. The hourly bell ringing gave people an opportunity to synchronize their respective timepieces, and early watches required frequent adjustment.

Alternative: There are many bells that ring to remind or instruct us to do things: doorbell (open the door), telephone bell (pick up the phone), school bell (come to class), toaster bell (take out the toast), and the clothes dryer bell (take out the clothes). So, if something such as a face, a name, a number, or a date "rings a bell," it causes you to remember something.


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I have located an early usage of the phrase, in "The Singer Passes: An Indian Tapestry" by Maud Diver (1934).

But to-night he was chiefly pre-occupied with a trouble of the spirit wrought in him by the phrase that had rung a bell in his brain, by the unheard whisper of some hidden meaning that eluded him

The phrase "ring a bell" is also included in Alfred H Holt's "Phrase Origins - A Study of Familiar Expressions" (1936) p. 276

The definition given is:

ring a bell. In the sense of "click" (q.v.), i.e., succeed, strike home, make an impression, I believe this derives from the well-known carnival device rather than from a target with a bell in its center. I refer to the spring-action contrivance that you hit with a sledge hammer in an effort to send a small weight up a slide to a bell at the top. No doubt the best ones are equipped with an ingenious braking arrangement by which action can be slowed up if some Hercules threatens to carry off...

This appears to have been Holt's personal opinion, and he doesn't appear to give any further evidence to support the theory. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the full text, and can only find snippet views on Google Books.

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This expression may well have its origins in radio of the 1940s. Contestants rang a bell when they recognized a melody and could name the song. [?]

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Please provide a link to a source in your answer. For example, a blog post or book about these radio shows. This not only makes your answer stronger, it also helps other people who may have similar questions in the future. –  Nick2253 Nov 24 '14 at 19:11

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