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The expression "hell's bells" conveys anger, irritation, or surprise, according to CED, MW etc, but they do not explain the origin.

Were there bells in hell? What is this in reference to?

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    To my recollection neither Milton nor Dante furnishes hell with any bells; the rhyme by itself might well account for what limited currency the expression has. But why refer to hell in the past tense? Dante's gate inscription claims "I shall last forever." Aug 24, 2020 at 11:33
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    The Phrase Finder is a recommended reference. << What's the origin of the phrase 'Hell's bells'? The exclamation 'Hell's bells' has been used in both the UK and the USA since at least the mid-19th century. The earliest example of it in print that I can find is from the weekly London sporting newspaper The Era, February 1840.... The expression came into common use in the first half of the 20th century... There's no reason ... Aug 24, 2020 at 11:55
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    to look for any special meaning of Hell's bells – it doesn't refer to diabolical campanology – the 'bells' are added just for the rhyme. >> Aug 24, 2020 at 11:55
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    Please don't write answers in comments; they are harmful to our site. Doing so bypasses our community-moderated quality measures by not permitting community editing or paired up- and down-voting available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don't use them for other purposes.
    – tchrist
    Aug 24, 2020 at 13:58
  • These mythical bells I believe also figure in the expression 'going like the clappers' which I've always understood to mean '. . .of the bells of Hell'
    – peterG
    Aug 24, 2020 at 22:25

3 Answers 3

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The Bible makes no mention of there being bells in Hell.

Wikipedia claims https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bells_of_Hell_Go_Ting-a-ling-a-ling

"The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling" is a British airmen's song from World War I, which was created around 1911.[1]

It is apparently a parody of another popular song of the time entitled "She Only Answered 'Ting-a-ling-a-ling'"[2]

However, a more reliable source seems to be

"THE LOGBOOK OF THE NAVAL AIRCRAFT ASOCIATION OF PHILADELPHIA" by John McClure - 1918 - ‎Snippet view, (Google books) Found inside – Page 88

In the accompanying lines , dedicated to the Germans , allusion is made to the sing of the machinegun bullets , characterized as the " Bells of Hell." The Bells of Hell go ting - a - ling - a - ling For you , but not for me . For me the angels sing - a ...

[1]This seems inaccurate, or at least confusing (the English is poor), as the First World War did not break out until 1914, and the Royal Flying Corps (A section of the British Army) was not founded until 1912. I can only assume that it is a reference soldiers when training in the use of machine guns or when under machine gun fire.

[2]TING-A-LING-TING-TAY. Copyright, 1892, by T. B. Harms & Co. Words and Music by Harry Dacre. (http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/37-ting-a-ling-ting-tay.htm)

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There is no meaning in Hell's Bells, it's just an alliterative exclamation to express anger, irritation, surprise.

The OED has the first recorded use as being in 1847: "‘H—ll's bells!’ exclaims the musician.", and shows that even the utterance of the word Hell was proscribed.

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Historically, many pre-literate (or really pre-industrial) societies had entrances to access subterranean sulfur mines (commonly associated with the literal Christian Biblical Hell). It is a common safety measure to place a sound making device, like wind chimes or small bells, at these entrances to warn miners that noxious gas was escaping and therefore it was unsafe to enter. In our modern industrialized world, such entrances are hardly in evidence - they are controlled by much more scientific safety devices, plus modern sulfur production is almost entirely through secondary petroleum byproduct processing rather than the unsafe direct mining.

And there is very slight semantic shift from 'a warning of noxious gas' to 'a general exclamation of irritation'. Other languages have similar phrases: Russian 'адские бубенцы', Mandarin '地狱的钟声' and Swahili 'kengele za kuzimu' (notice the alliteration in Chinese and Swahili).

It's only a coincidence that 'hell' (cognate to German 'Hölle') and 'bell' (MLG belle) rhyme in English. By inspecting their etymologies you can see that they came from very different sounding roots and only by the Great Vowel Shift did they converge.

So in sum, it refers to a common pre-literate practice of noise makers at the head of sulfur mines.

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    Do you have a source for the sulfur mine story? I'm skeptical of it; I did several Google searches to find more information and I didn't find any references to this practice. Aug 24, 2020 at 19:00
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    Who is ringing these bells? The main noxious sulphur gases are hydrogen sulphide (rotten eggs) and sulfur dioxide (like breathing in wasabi). I have smelled both and no-one would need a bell to tell them they were present. If breathed exclusively either will kill you within minutes, if not seconds. Aug 24, 2020 at 20:03
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    If there were these bells, could you provide evidence of the idiom used earlier than the song? generalkinematics.com/blog/sulfur-mining-processing-know The early days of sulfur mining involved miners finding the element on the earth’s surface in volcanic regions, such as Sicily."
    – Greybeard
    Aug 24, 2020 at 20:09
  • True or not, plausible or not, this is a good story that should be backed up by references. The etymological bit is not really needed and is probably phonologically incomplete. Other languages are barely relevant to the question. Despite these drawbacks, the downvotes seem excessive in number, so I compensated.
    – Anton
    Aug 17, 2022 at 21:55

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