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.
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. [?]