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To thrash someone within an inch of his life is sometimes referred to has beating seven bells out of him. But why should seven be the number chosen? This source here acknowledges the phrase exists but is silent as to the etymology, and here the phrase appears as kick seven bells... and alternatively ten bells, which I have never come across.

I've heard it suggested that the term derives from seven bells, the nautical expression for half-an-hour before the end of the watch (so one would beat someone within a small space of the end of his life). But how do we reconcile that with the alternative beat seven shades (of shit) out of?

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It was answered on Ask.Metafilter:

Like danb indicates, it's nautical slang. A four hour watch consists of eight half hour bells - seven bells is almost all the way.

The OED: "In Naut. slang phrs. to knock seven bells out of (someone): to beat (someone) severely; similarly, to scare seven bells out of: to terrify."


Edit: the earliest reference I found is Na motu: or, Reef-rovings in the South seas by Edward T. Perkins in 1854:

"I suppose there were a hundred look-outs between the night-heads, does that give you any right to disobey orders? My orders are, that no man shall sleep on watch. I'da mind, when I first began, to make an example of you ; but bear it in mind, that if I ever catch you at it again, I'll knock seven bells out of you ! Go ' long ; I've done with you."

There are a lot nautical references from the 19th century. Wikipedia has a good article on the eight ship's bells.


Edit 2: The Royal Navy's guide to Navy slang says:

To Knock Seven Bells out of a Man

An old naval expression for the giving of a sound thrashing (the nautical equivalent of "Knocking a man for six" [a cricketing term]); presumably to knock all eight bells out of a man would be to kill him!


Edit 3: "seven shades of" is much more recent. Here are some of the earliest references I found:

  • W. T. Tyler's 1982 Rogue's March: "kick seven shades of shit"
  • W. L. Ed Webb's 1985 The Bedside Guardian 34: "Does thou want seven shades of shit kicked out of thee?"
  • June 1989 SPIN magazine: "kicked up seven shades of hell"
  • 1994 British journal of photography: Volume 141: "beat seven shades [of hell]"
  • Robin Jarvis's 2010 Dancing Jax: "He'd best hope the police find him before I do because I will personally kick seven shades out of him."
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    +1 For not making things up. ;)
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented May 26, 2011 at 15:51
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With regard to the earliest published instance of the expression "beat seven bells out of [someone]," I note that a Google Books search turns up the following match from "Oppression and Ill Treatment on Board an Emigrant Ship," in The [London] Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (February 23, 1850):

Mr. Shaw, another emigrant [on the ship from England to Australia], deposed that he was suffering from rheumatism, and had an additional blanket ordered for him by the doctor. He complained one day of some other matter, and the blanket wa then taken from him. The nurse admitted she took away the blanket : "there was an order to do so, but not from the doctor." Another emigrant, Mr. Bainbridge, on returning to the vessel, was knocked down by Mr. Ross and the captain wanted him or any of the malcontents to stand before him, "and he'd knock seven bells out of them."

This article was published four years before Edward Perkins, Na Motu: or, Reef-Rovings in the South Seas (1854), cited in Hugo's answer as the earliest instance he could find in print.

An earlier account of the same shipboard incident appears in "Treatment of Passengers on Board the Barque 'Indian'—Public Inquiry," in Supplement to the 'Adelaide [South Australia] Observer' (September 15, 1849):

Mr Bainbridge described a similar outrage committed on him by the Captain's clerk since they arrived in port. He was called up out of his bed after he had returned from town wearied looking for employ and a house to remove to. On coming on deck, he was knocked down by Mr Ross, and the captain wanted him or any of them malcontents to stand before him, and he'd "knock seven bells out of them." The lights were extinguished, and the people lay in terror all night. In the morning, a child was found dead in the bed alongside of its mother, and no one knew when the death occurred. That night, while on deck, both the captain and the doctor told him that he should leave the ship the next morning, or his things would be thrown overboard.

Another early instance appeared in an article in the [Clearfield, Pennsylvania] Democratic Banner (February 15, 1850), reprinted five years later in the [Washington, D.C.] Daily American Organ under the title "The Sailor and the Jew" (May 30, 1855):

'Hands off,' cried Jack, 'or I'll knock seven bells out of ye. You'd steal the charm, if you ever got your pickers and stealers on them.'

The 1850 version of the story is unfortunately not currently available for viewing online because the host website at Pennsylvania State University is not accessible (and hasn't been for more than a month)—so I can't confirm that the date is correct. However, newspaper dates posted on Elephind tend to be quite accurate.

The "Jack" in the U.S. newspaper story is identified as "Jack Ringbolt" and is presented as being American, suggesting that the expression "beat seven bells out of [someone]" was current in both U.S. sailor slang and British sailor slang by 1850. The same story also contains fairly early instances of "Tell that to the marines" and of "you cannot make us swallow that for duff" (with "duff" parenthetically translated as "dough").

A fourth early instance of the expression appears in "Domestic Intelligence," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Argus (January 24, 1852):

A REFRACTORY APPRENTICE - Edwin Thomas Davis, an apprentice in the employ of Mr. G. Cavenagh, the proprietor of the Melbourne Morning Herald was yesterday brought before the Mayor, charged with insolence and insubordination. Mr. Cavenagh stated, that on Wednesday last, the defendant came to his private office, and asked him whether he intended to pay a bill for medical attendance on him (defendant), and on his refusal to do so was extremely insolent, and told witness to get somebody else to do his work. The boy was also generally troublesome, and had only a few days ago threatened to "knock seven bells" out of the overseer. Mr. Cunnington, solicitor, appeared for the defendant, and cross-examined Mr. Cavenagh, with a view of proving that the terms of the indentures had not been complied with. The Bench considered that if the boy had any ground of complaint, he should come before a magistrate and make it, and the defendant having expressed his sorrow for what had occurred, and promised to behave better in future, the prosecutor was induced to withdraw the charge, and the lad was admonished and dismissed.

This instance is noteworthy for the fact that the expression occurs in a non-maritime setting, indicating that in Australia its use was not limited to sailor slang by 1852.

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Supporting information: I have heard this expression in use in all three services at various times since the 1960s, and heard when my father and uncles exchanged anecdotes (most of them being ex RN), so I have always taken it to be Naval. It is common in the British Army, where milling (undefended boxing) is a part of training, and it should be noted that the Army until recently always transported its expeditionary forces by ship, so it will have had frequent contact with the naval watch system and vernacular.

While seven is a magic number with a long attested history, there is no evidence of that custom being related to this expression. "Seven bells of shit" is clearly being used in this context as a measure of capacity, but I think not as the quantity that could be contained by seven inverted bells - they would never be found together on one ship (unless in its cargo). Therefore it must be the accumulated quantity in a man's bowels by the time seven bells is sounded on a watch. Sorry, just logic, no written attribution is available.

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This saying was, as noted, Nautical slang, and would be quite archaic. In times past, seven was viewed as a lucky number, and everything was given seven(nearly) We had seven colours in the rainbow last time, forgive someone seventy times seven, seven deadly sins, ,etc.

We probably all know:

Seven wonders of the Ancient World

It was actually a religious number, and as people were religious last time, they just used seven frequently.

In fact, we see the popularity of seven in other religions, i.e. Islam, which teaches seven heavens and seven articles of faith, Hinduism, with the seven chakras, in Japan even, there are seven gods, seven bushidos, 777 in toilets!!.

Seven appears everywhere: Seven Hills of Rome, Seven Liberal Arts, Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove(China), etc.

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  • Your usage of last time to mean something like in the past is foreign to me. Is that common in some dialect?
    – Dusty
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 22:06
  • Nah, just my personal usage of it. I'll edit it to suit you though.
    – Thursagen
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 22:39
  • @Dusty "Last time" is certainly dialect in Malaysia & Singapore (among those for whom English is their second language) - to mean "previously". E.G. "I've just begun using my car for going to work." "Oh yes - what did you do last time?".
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 6:36
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From the OED

P4. seven bells.

[Apparently originally with allusion to the nautical tradition of sounding ‘eight bells’ to mark a sailor's death (i.e. sounding the ship's bell eight times, the usual signal for the end of a watch; hence ‘seven bells’ would carry the implication ‘almost to death’.]

a. Originally slang (originally U.S. Nautical). to knock (also beat, kick, etc.) seven bells out of a person: to beat (kick, etc.) a person severely.

1844 N.Y. Herald 13 Jan. I heard Linden, as he came out of the forecastle, say that he would knock ‘seven bells’ out of the mate.

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Seven is just a magical number, and so has been used for many things since antiquity. We have seven days in a week, seven is the number of the sum of any two opposite sides of a die, there are seven deadly sins, etc.

The number seven is well-exercised in Christianity:

  • The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy and Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other traditions
  • The Seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride
  • Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • The Seven Joys of the Virgin Mary, of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other traditions
  • The Seven Sacraments in the Catholic faith (though some traditions assign a different number)
  • The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other traditions
  • There are seven suicides mentioned in the Bible (OT and NT).[5]
  • The seven terraces of Mount Purgatory (one per deadly sin)
  • The Seven Virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience, and humility
  • In the genealogy in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is 77th in a direct line
  • The number of heads of the three beasts (7 × 10 × 7 + 7 × 10 × 10 + 7 × 10 = 1260) of the - - Book of Revelation, and of some other monsters, like the hydra and the number of seals

[Wikipedia]

But other religions and cultures reserve special significance for the number as well. It is "a highly symbolic number in the Torah, alluding to the infusion of spirituality and Godliness into the creation," and "the Seven Lucky Gods refer to the seven gods of good fortune in Japanese mythology."

[Ibid.]

There is too much more to list here.

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A naval watch is eight bells long (four hours), then you get a chance to visit the heads (toilets). So after the sounding of seven bells a jack would have full bowels. So it would seem that to knock or beat seven bells of shit out of him is to beat him so severely that he shits himself as badly as possible. Naval slang, explicit - but used in all the British armed forces.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 20:09
  • Unsupported, this seems like "folk-etymology".
    – Greybeard
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 11:59

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