Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Betty Vanderwielen

Why use bells and whistles?

Funky Phrases


Public Domain,

Circus poster featuring a calliope. The steam mechanism and the musician operator have been made visible. By Gibson & Co.

SEELEY LAKE – If Joe bought a fancy new computer, he might boast to Cindy, "It has all the bells and whistles." Nevertheless, if Cindy were to take apart his computer, she would find neither a bell nor a whistle among the pieces of hardware. So how did this phrase, meaning fancy additions beyond those essential to the use of the item itself, come into being? No one knows for sure, but that does not keep anyone from speculating.

One theory connects the phrase with trains, especially steam locomotives, which used a whistle as a sort of shorthand messaging system. Three short bursts from a moving train meant it would stop at the next station. Two long, one short, one long meant the train was approaching a public grade crossing. Bells were sounded when trains were moving at slow speeds or approaching a station. In other words, bells and whistles signaled a train was doing something in the vicinity. Opponents of this origin theory protest that it only represents a noisy accompaniment, not the boasting of fancy additions.

A perhaps better theory concerns medieval pilgrimages. While it might seem logical that pilgrims should spend their time in prayer and religious meditation as they journeyed to a sacred shrine, Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" demonstrates otherwise. But even his pilgrims, who amused themselves along the trek by exchanging (sometimes bawdy) stories seems bland in comparison to the complaint leveled against pilgrims by William Thorpe in 1407. Thorpe describes a rowdy group that enters each town with bells and (bagpipe) whistles blaring.

According to Thorpe, before they began their pilgrimage they arranged " have with them both men and women that can well sing wanton songs, and some other pilgrims will have their bagpipes; so that every town they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the jangling of their Canterbury bells, and the barking out of dogs after them, they make more noise than if the King came there away with all his clarions and many other minstrels."

In other words, their bells and whistles were indeed fancy additions beyond what was necessary or essential for a pilgrimage.

Another convincing theory for the origin of the phrase traces it to calliopes or steam organs often found on riverboats or accompanying fairs or circuses. The music of the calliope is produced by sending steam through large whistles. The whistle and steam units were usually encased in a wooden frame. Those used in circuses or fairs were mounted on a wagon pulled by horses. The casing often was extravagantly decorated and might include other musical instruments.

According to Wikipedia, "There were often ornate human figures such as a conductor whose arm moved in time to the music or women whose arms would strike bells. The mechanics to accomplish this motion were quite intricate and provided a pleasant visual experience in addition to the music."

A relative to the fair organ was the theater organ, which provided musical accompaniment and sound effects when silent movies were in vogue. These organs relied on air moving through the pipes or electro-pneumatic action.

Wikipedia asserts: "Real musical instruments, not previously associated with the pipe organ, were installed in the pipe chambers to be pneumatically operated at will by the organist. Such instruments as piano, drums, cymbals, xylophone, marimba, orchestra bells, chimes, castanets, wood blocks, and even tuned sleigh bells could be played from the organ keyboards. Sound effects such as train and boat whistles, car horns, sirens, bird whistles, and an imitation of ocean surf could be used to great effect at appropriate times during a silent film."

Bells and whistles indeed!

Whatever the original source of the phrase, there is plenty of precedent for using it to describe fancy, and not necessarily needed, additions to computers, cars or what have you.


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