No major dictionary website carries the origin of this proverb. Some blogs speculate that it comes from a locomotive usage. In the days of the steam engine, engines would be equipped with bells and whistles to let people know of their presence. Over time, this got distorted to its current meaning, of non-essential add-ons to products to entice customers.

I can imagine that this has a more agrarian origin. In cattle fairs, where cattle are bought and sold, cattle are often decorated with festoons and beads and so on, to entice potential customers and hopefully increase value as well. Does anyone have anything to substantiate this, or a better explanation of its origin?

Edit: the n-grams show that it was used first in British English in 1847, and in American English as late as 1865. This would suggest a British origin, rather than the commonly accepted American one.

British and American English n-grams links here and here.

  • The Phrase Finder has an interesting assumption: Another possibility is that the expression derived from the work of the English cartoonist and sculptor Rowland Emett. He created cartoons and contraptions, in a similar eccentric and whimsical style to the earlier artist, William Heath . Given that 'bells and whistles' appears to be an American phrase, the archetypally English Emett might seem a dubious source. What places him at the front of the queue is that he became celebrated in the USA after he designed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968.
    – user66974
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 9:28
  • This places him as the designer of a very well-known and unambiguously 'bells and whistles' creation at the right place at the right time. It does seem quite likely that the unknown American who coined the phrase 'bells and whistles' in or around 1971 would have had Emett's designs in mind. Plausibility isn't proof though; we'll just have to wait for that. phrases.org.uk/meanings/bells-and-whistles.html -
    – user66974
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 9:31
  • The movie script for CCBB doesn't seem to include the phrase directly, by the way.
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 9:58
  • 3
    Regarding your n-gram results, 'whistles and bells' shows a very similar frequency until about 1970. This suggests to me that prior usage was only the literal description of bells and whistles, not the idiom.
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 11:10
  • 3
    1955, Science Digest, volume 38, page 360, "What we will need for large-scale industrial use is a stripped-down model without all the 'bells and whistles.' "
    – DavePhD
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 13:37

11 Answers 11


The Collins dictionary has this to say about the etymology of this phrase:

Bells and whistles

Word origin: from the bells and whistles which used to decorate fairground organs


Fairground organs could be very colorful, so it's easy to see how they would serve as a basis for the idiom:

enter image description here

  • 1
    This theory doesn't fit the timescale of the first use. The type of mechanical organ shown in the image only dates back to around 1890, when the punched paper "piano-roll" was invented. The invention of portable electrical generators (originally driven by the steam-engines that were used to move the travelling fairground rides) was also a big influence on the design. Prior to that date, mechanical organs and pianos were much smaller and simpler instruments.
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 18:35
  • Barrel organs (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_organ#Usage) date from at least the mid-19th century (and maybe earlier), and fit the bill.
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 17:24
  • c.f. books.google.com/… which associates "all of the bells and whistles" with barrel organs as far back as the 1600's.
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 17:39

Not sure about the cattle, but you could be on the right lines with country fairs. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (by Julia Cresswell), under the entry on 'Bell', states (p.44):

Bells and whistles for attractive but unnecessary extras (...) is an allusion to the bells and whistles of old fairground organs.

which makes more sense to me than putting a whistle on a cow. The Wikipedia entry for such a calliope mentions

The whistles of a calliope are tuned to a chromatic scale, although this process is difficult and must be repeated often to maintain quality sound. Since the pitch of each note is largely affected by the temperature of the steam, accurate tuning is nearly impossible; however, the off-pitch notes (particularly in the upper register) have become somewhat of a trademark of the steam calliope. A calliope may have anywhere from 25 to 67 whistles, but 32 is traditional for a steam calliope.

And the entry for fairground organ says:

The ornate case façades frequently had different instruments such as a Glockenspiel or Drums that provide visual entertainment as they played. There were often ornate human figures such as a conductor whose arm moved in time to the music or women whose arms would strike bells. The mechanics to accomplish this motion were quite intricate and provided a pleasant visual experience in addition to the music.

So while I'm reluctant to claim this as the source, these early steam-powered entertainments were certainly fitted with lots of Bs and Ws, for delightful if arguably non-essential reasons.

Edit -- crossposted with @A.P.

  • I think the "calliope" origin is more plausible that the "fairground organ" origin because of the timescales - but calliopes didn't have "bells".
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 18:43
  • Some calliopes did have a jingling-bell effect, just as some theater organs did. Back when carousels had music machines rather than just playing recordings, this was common there too.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 22:34
  • In my wife's family (Liverpool/ Irish) there's a long-standing habit when talking about a fancy bit of equipment (such as a complicated espresso machine) of saying, It does everything but whistle Dixie. Which sounds American to me - we don't sing about Dixie much over here. Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 20:21

Here is an attestation from 1858 of the phrase "bells and whistles" in connection with the idea of fancy conveniences that mansions can be fitted out with.

  • 1
    That's a very interesting reference -- something I wouldn't have thought of but which could very likely identify the bells and whistles being referenced. And the use of "bells and whistles" for the section heading suggests that that phrase might have already had some currency.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 12:44
  • Agreed. By the by, I found this interesting: ...new-comers...a numerous class, we regret to say, in this country.
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 13:32
  • Yes, I detected some noses relatively high in the air.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 17:49

In the early 20 century, battery operated electric clocks were developed known as master clocks. A single master clock in a school or factory could run dozens of slave clocks through the building. The clocks also rang bells for lunch or break times and blew whistles for end of day. The bells and whistles where extra options that not every system had. If you got a very fancy system, you got one with "all the bells and whistles" enter image description here


I'm not sure whether this counts as a definitive source, but I recently heard a story on the radio about movie theater organs, once used for live performances during silent films, which claimed that the saying derives from these. These organs had many additional instruments attached to them to allow a range of sounds to be produced, including bells and whistles.

There are a lot of sayings that we use that come from an organ. I mean, "all the bells and whistles." That's because of these things. The phrase, "pulling out all the stops," that's from church and concert organs.

Wikipedia's article on the theatre organ also makes reference to these additional components of these organs.

Real musical instruments, not previously associated with the pipe organ, were installed in the pipe chambers to be pneumatically operated at will by the organist. Such instruments as piano, drums, cymbals, xylophone, marimba, orchestra bells, chimes, castanets, woodblock, and even tuned sleigh bells could be played from the organ keyboards. Sound effects such as train and boat whistles, car horns, sirens, bird whistles, and an imitation of ocean surf could be used to great effect at appropriate times during a silent film.

Clearly these theater organs are related to fairground organs, so I'm not sure whether this is a better answer than "fairground organs," but I think it has some relevance.


According to a 1974 US Congress report, "The Congress and Information Technology":

Within the computer industry, the phrase "all the bells and whistles" alludes to a computer with a panoply of offerings — some necessary, some merely nice to have — which gives the user greater latitude in using his machine.

The idiomatic use of the phrase "all the bells and whistles" grew out of jargon within the computer industry.

By late 1950s "bells and whistles" was being used as jargon in the computer industry.

For example:

1962, Proceedings Annual Conference on Automation and Personnel:

Many have a variety of attachments and peripheral gear nicknamed the "bells and whistles."

1960, Datamation:

They acknowledge the lack of input/output routines, sort, and other “bells and whistles,” but state these fall under the category of environment description and will be taken care of by the manufacturers.

1957, Office Automation Applications,

The 650 with tapes, according to Combustion Engineering's Assistant Controller, Herbert Seidensticker, "has all the basic features of a large-scale computer -- it may not have all the bells and whistles, or the speed, ...

1956, Proceedings of the Automation Conference

one of our out-of-town clients had an IBM 650 on order with all the bells and whistles

The oldest use in the modern sense that I have found actually is in reference to an infrared pyrometer (thermometer):

What we will need for large-scale industrial use is a stripped-down model without all the 'bells and whistles'.

This was published in August 1955 in the journal Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, volume 47, issue 8, pages 7A, 9A and also in Science Digest, volume 38, page 360.


Two things are crucial to sorting this out, first the meaning of the expression and second, its idiomatic as opposed to everyday usage. The Oxford English dictionary give the following:

bells and whistles n. [as on a fairground organ] colloq. attractive additional features or trimmings, esp. in Computing.

1977 Byte July 122/2 This simple circuit..even has a few outputs that can be used to provide user defined functions, such as enabling external devices or turning on bells and whistles. 1983 Austral. Personal Computer Dec. 82/3, 1-2-3 has a full complement of the usual bells and whistles... Column widths can be varied, cells protected, screen split in two, models split, merged and printed. 1984 Sunday Times 26 Aug. 49/1 There are more than 600 microsystems on the market so it is hardly surprising that the manufacturers have taken to hanging a few bells and whistles on to their machines to get them noticed.

Rather than a fairground organ, I would think a theater organ. Thousands were made between the late nineteenth century and the onset of the talkies, and one of their features was the so-called toy counter, which featured bells, whistles, and other added on, non-essential but valued sounds. This actually fits with the definition of the idiom.

If the idiom were to be drawn from everyday usage, where bells and whistles were a common element of factories, locomotives, and steamships among other things, then the "bells and whistles" were crucial safety or signalling devices integral to what the thing did, whether it was a factory whistle used to control workers or a locomotive whistle used as a warning. These bells and whistles were not extraneous at all, and thus probably not the source of the expression.

The n-grams need to be drilled down into to tell this story. An n-gram search on Whistles and bells as well as bells and whistles can be used to sort out the idiomatic from the everyday. The geeks don't get the original though. I found a usage from the 1950s by a tractor-trailer driver, indicating that the expression was popular orally long before it became popular in print.

It can also be found in the seventies in audio equipment marketing, military, and business use besides the home computer users and hackers. A search for bells and whistles using google's custom dates set for the 1970s (leaving out unix default date of 1/1/1970 gets rid of most but not all the false positives) will turn up a bunch of idiomatic uses in various fields, as will drilling down to the actual texts in the n-grams. I'd put in the link but I only get two!

I think the theater org makes the most sense, but I don't have hard proof. The data do point toward a more complex answer than "hackers" though. Maybe if I pulled out all the stops...(another theater organ idiom).


My answer to my own question:

I suddenly felt like combing the google books archive for this phrase, trying to see how this phrase has evolved. I don't know how comprehensive the archive the good folks at Google have, but this is what the archives show:

The first usage of the idiom as we know it currently is in an advertisement in the Computerworld magazine, issue of 7th Mar 1973. After this, it shows a lot in the same magazine's articles.

Bells and whistles show up in a lot of regulation handbooks for locomotives and boats right upto the 70s. In 1966, the first suggestion of the phrase meaning something more than the regulatory usage.

The bells started as a strictly utilitarian means of signaling to rouse roustabouts at a landing and to warn passengers and guests of a departure. Gradually they grew into bigger, shinier, and more mellow status symbols. Some weighed upto 1,500 pounds and had quarts of silver dollars melted in their metal.

This is from the book "River Boats of America", by Frank R Donovan.

  • 1
    See my comments to your question: the modern, purely idiomatic usage goes back at least to the mid-1960s.
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 13:01

Bell and whistle buoys were deployed at sea in the last half of the 19th century. this also seems a worthy candidate, as they were add-ons to visible buoys.

  • 1
    What is your evidence for this?
    – Laurel
    Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 13:13

I'm surprised that this hasn't been mentioned already but.... could it be 18th and 19th baby rattles?! I can't find any direct references to this so I'm really just spitballing but it seems so obvious. They were super popular around the time that a lot of people talk about this phrase developing in relation to trains or organs (early to mid 19th century) and they're playthings literally comprised of bells and whistles designed to entertain the simple mind of a child. So if the phrase 'bells and whistles' is to develop into meaning 'superfluous additions that entertain and distract' then.... is this not a super plausible origin?

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    Commented Mar 25 at 4:26
  • is this not a super plausible origin? -It is not. Baby rattles neither whistle nor ring.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 25 at 9:53

In my opinion, the original usage dates back to the 15th century when pilgrims were often criticised for making a nuisance of themselves with their bells and whistles.

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