Where does the expression "rings a bell" come from?
Bob: Have we met before?
Geoff: Well, your face rings a bell.
According to Etymonline:
Here's an excerpt from that last linked page:
Another possible origin is the one this page advocates:
To counter the tiresomely inaccurate Google Ngrams, I've decided to do some research using the COHA corpus:
The first idiomatic usage listed dates from 1941:
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":
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.
I have located an early usage of the phrase, in "The Singer Passes: An Indian Tapestry" by Maud Diver (1934).
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:
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.
As an old timer I can remember that "ringing your bell" had to do with the after shock affect of getting "clocked" by a impact to the head. In the case of boxing, a "bell ringer " would be a knockout where the bell was rung to signal the end of the fight. It was often illustrated as such in old 1950s - 60s cartoons. I second the reference to the carnival sledgehammer strength meter where the hammer strikes the fulcrum and launches a metal hammer up a vertical slide and ultimately hitting the bell at the top. Just as with boxing, the winner is a bell ringer. It's not a big stretch to see how this morphed into its current sexual vernacular or even financial stock market reference.
After some research, I conclude that it depends on the context. I got here from searching “what does it mean when the brakeman rings his bell?” after listening to these lyrics of Night Flight by Led Zeppelin: Please Mr. Brakeman, won't you ring your bell. And ring loud and clear Please Mr. Fireman, won't you ring your bell Tell the people they got to fly away from here
I recall that, for steam engine trains, a fireman is the guy who shovels coal into the furnace. According to Wikipedia, the brakeman assists the braking of a train by applying brakes on individual wagons.
Bells have been around for about 5, 000 years, and have obviously been used to convey information and to remind people to do something. If the brakeman rings the bell, it means that the fireman should stop shoveling and close the furnace. For a boxer, it means a hard hit to the head. It’s all about context!
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