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Bells and whistles

Q From Herve Castelain, France: For my job I have to read American magazines concerning consumer electronics, home systems, burglar alarms, etc. I very often come across the expression bells and whistles, which seem to relate to equipment, accessories or features that are offered to the customer as plusses but are not really indispensable for the device to work. Is that right? And where does that funny phrase come from?

A You’re right about the meaning of this phrase, which refers to non-essential but often engaging features added to a piece of technical equipment or a computer program to make it seem more superficially attractive without enhancing its main function. It has now spread well beyond its American homeland and is familiar, I’d guess, to most English speakers.

The digital textbooks that are available have none of the digital bells and whistles that an electronic platform could support.

Chicago Sun-Times, 8 Nov. 2010.

It has also widened well beyond technical contexts:

One would think that most chief financial officers, tax executives and business owners take full advantage of all the bells and whistles provided in the United States tax code.

Financial Executive, 1 May 2010.

The phrase is relatively modern. One of its earlier appearances was in an article in the US magazine Atlantic in October 1982, which said it was “Pentagon slang for extravagant frills”. But I’ve found that the term is recorded from a couple of decades earlier:

A beautiful tri-level in the woods situated on quiet street. This home has many of the plus features: 3 bedrooms, den, family room, 2 baths, 1st floor laundry, patio doors, kitchen with all the bells and whistles, fallout shelter plus many other features.

A classified advertisement in the Wisconsin State Journal, 27 Apr. 1963.

Where it comes from is still a matter of debate. As a literal phrase, it has been around since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, in reference to the noisemakers on streetcars, railway locomotives and steamships. Before modern electronics, there were really only two ways to make a loud warning noise: you either rang a bell or tooted a whistle. US railroad locomotives had both:

You look up at an angle of sixty degrees and see sweeping along the edge of a precipice, two-thirds up the rocky height, a train of red-and-yellow railway-cars, drawn by two wood-burning engines, the sound of whose bells and whistles seems like the small diversions of very little children, so diminished are they by the distance.

A Day At Dutch Flat, by Albert F Webster, in Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science and Art, New York, October 1876. Dutch Flat is north-east of Sacramento in Placer County, California. It’s a small community these days, but at the time it was a big mining camp for workers extracting gold from one of the richest deposits in the state. The town was actually founded by two German brothers, not by Dutchmen, but the locals were probably confused, as others were, about the difference between Deutsch and Dutch. The train was running on the Central Pacific Railroad.

I’m told that the bells and whistles on locomotives were used for different signalling purposes, so that both were considered necessary, though not strictly essential, parts of its equipment. It may be that the coiners of the phrase had this in mind. Indeed, it is sometimes said that the term arose out of model railway societies, where to have a layout in which locomotives had their bells and whistles meant that it was fully equipped down to the smallest detail, and thus one up on enthusiasts who didn’t have them.

Further support for a railway source came from Ed Kemmick, who pointed out that an inverted form of the phrase is known here:

Feel like a broke-down engine, mama,
ain’t got no whistles or bells.
Feel like a broke-down engine, baby,
ain’t got no whistles or bells.
If you’re a real hot mama,
come take away Daddy’s weeping spell.

From Broke Down Engine Blues No. 2 by the American bluesman Blind Willie McTell, recorded in New York City in 1933.

This may just be an accidental similarity of usage, but it does seem to show that at this date bells and whistles were linked especially to railway locomotives.

However, it’s more probable that the slang sense comes from that extraordinary entertainment machine, the cinema organ, which in the heyday of films would rise out of the pit, bringing with it the organist to entertain during intervals. In an earlier era it accompanied silent films; organs such as the Mighty Wurlitzer augmented their repertoire by sound effects to help the organist, among them car horns, sirens, and bird whistles. These effects were called toys, and organs often had toy counters with 20 or more noisemakers on them, including various bells and whistles. In the 1950s, decades after the talkies came in, but while theatre organs were still common in big movie houses, these fun features must have been considered no longer essential to their function but mere fripperies, inessential add-ons.

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Page created 27 Jul 2002; Last updated 13 Nov 2010