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Dear Word Detective: At most recent biennial family reunion, a cousin asserted that “rings a bell” (triggers a memory) stems from practice of including mechanisms with coffins to prevent being buried alive and attributes such “fact” to tour of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Thanks in part to your tutelage, I’m among the “Nots.” I didn’t find phrase in your archives or other sources, but Bill Bryson (in recent book “At Home”) does note the practice (during 19th century) of adding bells, flags (and breathing tubes!) to coffins/graves, mentions Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and the fact that the term “taphephobia” was coined to describe this (popular?) fear. World Wide Words, in discussion of term “ringer” (in sense of “more adept than expected substitute”) also notes the burial practices, but explicitly denies any connection with phrase “dead ringer.” My guess would be that “rings a bell” is much older than 19th century, bells having been used to “call attention” probably almost from their inception. (There’s a bit in Macbeth about ringing bells in alarm.) I’d further surmise the evolution of the phrase includes the physical practice of slapping one’s (or other’s) head to stimulate cognitive processes which could easily be compared to a clapper striking a bell. (Oddly, though, to “have one’s bell rung” — from a stunning blow to the head — apparently dates only to 1960s.) In any case, I’m hoping your resources far exceed mine and that you can once again sort the facts from the fictions. — Stephen C. Hess.
My, what a long question you have. Yet you managed to omit my favorite response when asked for my name: “Does the name ‘Quasimodo’ ring a bell?” Yes, I slay myself, and no, I’m not planning to grow up anytime soon.
To begin at the beginning, your choosing to be counted a “Not” regarding that “Believe It Or Not” story is richly justified. I loved Ripley’s illustrated newspaper feature as a child, but I suspect that at least 80% of the “facts” we were asked to believe were nonsense. It is true, as Bill Bryson says, that there was widespread fear in the 19th century of being buried alive, and many bizarre gizmos to avoid that grim fate were invented. “Taphephobia” isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it must not have been a very successful invention, but it appears to be simply “phobia” (fear) preceded by the Greek word “taph,”meaning “grave or funeral” (also found in “epitaph,” literally “above the grave”).
Nineteenth century “taphephobia” is understandable, given the primitive state of medicine at the time (“Hey, he looks dead. Start digging.”). But the popular belief that such phrases as “dead ringer,” “saved by the bell” and “graveyard shift” (supposedly referring to people hired to sit and wait for the bell to ring) all refer to the fear of being buried alive is simply preposterous. I don’t have the space to debunk the sillier stories here, but explanations of all three phrases can be found by using the search box at www.word-detective.com.
I suppose the addition of “rings a bell” to that roster of flapdoodle was inevitable, but, as usual, there is no evidence for that theory. Mental bells have been figuratively ringing for people for centuries in a variety of senses, though many of them are remarkably recent coinages. “To ring the bell,” for instance, has meant “to be the best” since 1900, “to ring a person’s bell,” meaning to please someone (“Brasserie Cognac’s version of macaroni and cheese rings my bell,” 2008), first appeared in the 1970s, and “to ring one’s own bell,” meaning “to boast or brag,” dates to 1859. “To ring a bell” meaning “to awaken a memory or prompt recognition” is similarly recent, first showing up in print in 1933. The phrase simply likens the sudden moment of remembering or recognizing to a bell being rung. No graveyard or ungrateful dead needed. Your hunch about it referring to smacking one’s own head to stimulate cognition is a good one, but apparently unnecessary.