Bells and Whistles

Meaning of Idiom ‘Bells and Whistles’

Bells and whistles are additional features that are added to a product but that are not essential to its basic function; fancy but nonessential add-ons or gadgets. 1Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,2Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.,3Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.

Usage

This idiom, which often refers to technological products or electronics, can be positive or negative depending on the context. For example:

“My new car is great. It has all the latest bells and whistles.” (Positive)

“They haven’t changed the product at all. That’s just a bunch of bells and whistles.” (Negative)

In the first example, bells and whistles are seen as positive additions to the car. These might be features such as a media system or the latest safety devices, for instance. In the second example, the product mentioned is considered to have many useless features meant to make it look more attractive or useful, but which do not actually add real value to the product.

Bells and whistles idiom meaning

Examples Of Use

“I only use my phone to make calls and to text. I don’t need a lot of bells and whistles.”

“I got a great deal on my hotel room for my vacation. It has all the bells and whistles including an in-room whirlpool bath!

Origin

Although this idiom has existed since the early 1900s 4Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013., it became more common during the 1980s in reference to electronic technology, especially in reference to microcomputers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary Of Word Origins, this idiom is an allusion to old-time fairground organs which would have bells and whistles attached to extend their noisemaking ability. 5Cresswell, Julia, editor. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. However, the idiom could also refer to bicyclists, who, during the 1880s, would use many bells and whistles, either on their person or attached to their bicycle. Indeed, bicycles came equipped, or could be accessorized with a variety of additional devices and noisemakers such as bells and whistles, an important addition to the serious bicyclists, could have come to represent all such accessories. These noisemakers, along with horns, and earlier, bugles, were used to warn pedestrians to get out of the way. During the 1890s, Americans spent millions of dollars on bicycle accessories. 6Norcliffe, G. B. Ride to Modernity, The: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900. University of Toronto Press., 2001.,7Reid, Carlton. Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring. Island Press, 2015.

More Idioms Starting with B

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Sources   [ + ]

1, 4. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
3. Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
5. Cresswell, Julia, editor. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
6. Norcliffe, G. B. Ride to Modernity, The: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900. University of Toronto Press., 2001.
7. Reid, Carlton. Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring. Island Press, 2015.