Rings a bell
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Rings a bell'?
Awaken a memory.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Rings a bell'?
The expression 'that rings a bell' is used when we come across something that jars our memory to recall something that was previously only faintly remembered. The 'that doesn't ring a bell' is used just as often when a stimulus to memory brings up nothing. Bells feature quite strongly in etymology and several phrases include the words 'ring' or 'bell' - see a select list below:
- Saved by the bell
- For whom the bell tolls
- Bell the cat
- Bells and whistles
- Born within the sound of Bow Bells
- Bell, book and candle
- With bells on
'That rings a bell' originated in the first half of the 20th century. It is tempting to assume that it originated as a reference to the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who showed that dogs can be prompted to salivate at the sound of a bell, even if the food that the animal anticipates being given is withheld. This 'conditioned reflex' was established in Pavlov's experiments in 1901, so fit nicely with the timing of the use of the phrase 'rings a bell'. Sadly, there's nothing to link Pavlov's work to the expression.
'That rings a bell' is more likely to be a reference to a more general allusion to some stimulus that prompts us to 'have an inkling' of a thought. Indeed, the similarity of 'inkling' and 'tinkling' may have brought about the idea of a faint bell in our mind when we recall some faint memory.
Most early references in print to 'rings a bell' relate to actual bells used in safety devices or to summon servants. One of the earliest that refers to ringing a bell in the sense of awakening a memory is found in the US writer Lee Thayer's novel Counterfeit, 1933:
Wait a second, Ray... Why does that name ring a bell with you?