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Dumb bell

Posted by Smokey Stover on March 04, 2006

In Reply to: Dumb bell Posted by Debra Hernandez on March 03, 2006

: where did the phrase "Dumb bell" when calling someone a dumb bell?

You probably already know that the original dumb-bell was an apparatus that simulated the ringing of a bell, but without any actual ringing (thus dumb, or mute), for training in ringing the changes. From there it seems to have led to the two round balls connected by a rod, used in pairs for physical training. Dumb-bell used to characterize an intellectually challenged person, or dumbhead, first appeared in print in 1920, according to the OED, which calls it U.S. slang.

The word "dumb" as applied to persons had long been used to suggest more than muteness. When Thomas Aquinas was called by his school mates a "dumb ox," it was already an old expression, suggesting both the silence and the lack of intelligence of an ox. In the 19th century "dumb" was widely used to described persons as not very bright.

Why, then, dumbbell, a piece of equipment that was silent but no more stupid than any other contraption. There may have been suggestions by people more knowledgeable than I, but it seems to me that the first users of the word as it is used today wanted a noun phrase, since dumb is an adjective, and "bell" was the first association that came to mind. Nowadays one hears other words used with dumb, such as "you dumb son of a bitch," which has more punch than "you dumbbell" or "you dumbhead." I'd be glad to hear more persuasive suggestions than these. SS