What is the meaning of the phrase ring any bells? It means to hear or see something that helps you remember details about a particular thing.
Example: Jason and his friend were talking and eventually his friend asked, “Jason, do you remember our short trip to Los Angeles? It was well over a decade ago, so maybe not.” As Jason thought about it, his friend said, “Hang on, let me show you a photo to see if that rings any bells for you.” (In other words, the photo might help Jason to remember details about the trip.)
Ring Any Bells – Its Origin
The origin of this phrase is unclear, however, there is one particular theory I’ve seen that is interesting. Let’s go over it:
So, bells. What’s the point of a bell? Well, they can help us to remember things. It’s like hearing an alarm go off on your phone—that alarm sound reminds us of something that needs doing. Let’s look at a few examples of bells:
- School Bells – A school bell ringing can remind students that school is about to start and they need to get to class, or that recess is over, among other things.
- Alarm Clock – The sound of an alarm clock ringing helps to wake people up at specific times in the morning. A person might also set an alarm clock to go off at a particular time during the day to remind them of something.
- Call Bells – If someone is seeking service, they might ring a call bell, alerting any nearby attendants.
So perhaps this idiom derives from a bell’s function to alert or remind us of certain things. Because when somebody asks: “Does this ring any bells?” They are essentially saying: “Does this remind of you anything?”
Anyways, the earliest appearance of this idiom in print that I could find is from the San Antonio Light newspaper, November 1937:
“Mariorie Weaver’s name may not ring any bells in the movie-going public’s consciousness now but wait until you see her in ‘Second Honeymoon.'”
- My sister was talking to me about an actor but their name did not ring any bells; however, after looking up an image of them on my phone and I recognized who they were.
- Hearing the neighbor’s sprinklers helped to jog my memory; I need to water the yard today!
- Seeing an empty milk carton in the fridge reminded me that I need to go grocery shopping.
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