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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

bells and whistles

(1980’s | advertese? | “additional features,” “doodads,” “frills”)

There’s plenty of on-line speculation about the origin of this expression. It is a puzzler because there are several possibilities, none of which has anything obvious to do with “bells and whistles” as used since 1970 or so: features of a product — a car, computer, camera, etc. — not needed to make it work but which add power, capability, or luxury, and cost. In today’s language, it doesn’t even have to be tangible; a web site, business plan, or legislation might have bells and whistles. What I saw in Google Books makes me think that the main conduit into everyday language was computerese, although some on-line authorities say car dealers used it first. Generally bells and whistles are thought to be a good thing, but there is a persistent undercurrent dogging the phrase. Sometimes bells and whistles are considered distracting, superfluous, or excuses to drive prices up without delivering better performance. An investment manager “aims to provide simple, yet solid guidelines that work for any investment plan in the long run, devoid of any quick fixes or bells and whistles.” A writer deplores over-elaborate restaurant desserts: “There were tuiles, there were chocolate towers, there were flowers made of spun sugar. Good luck finding the actual dessert amid all the bells and whistles.”

All right, you ask, why use “bells and whistles,” devices not normally associated with ease or comfort, to refer to such things? World Wide Words, WiseGeek, and Phrase Finder have all taken a swing at this, and the consensus seems to be that it has to do with fairground or movie-house organs, which incorporated many sound effects, including bells and whistles, the better to hold the crowd’s attention. Or it may derive from model railroading, as in “This train set is so true to life it has all the bells and whistles.” There are other possibilities as well — factory time signals, parties and celebrations, buoys, alarm systems — but they seem less plausible. The fact is, no one knows for sure how this popular expression crept, seeped, or slithered into our vocabulary between 1960 and 1990. That’s not a dig or swipe; that’s a respectful acknowledgment of the mysteries of language.

Actually, I found one reference as far back as 1977 to a writer who explained the origin of the phrase, in a short-lived magazine called “ROM.” Unfortunately, Google Books’ snippet view, which I have complained about before, didn’t show me the answer, only the set-up. The nearest library that has copies of this periodical is in Rochester. But if any of my faithful readers can track this one down, I will award you a free subscription without hesitation. I’ll bet the proposed derivation has something to do with circus organs or locomotives. But even if it doesn’t, it won’t be definitive.

What “bells and whistles” ought to denote is “means of getting your attention.” It’s not that they’re cool or make your machine better, it’s that they make you sit up and take notice, like loud a noise going off in your ear. It should be what marketers do, not what designers and engineers do (arguably, the engineers create the features and the marketers turn them into bells and whistles). That’s why I suggest that we thank advertese for pushing a new, improved meaning for this expression into the forefront.

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