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What Does it Mean to Have "Bells On"?

Someone with bells on is very enthusiastic about a certain event.
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  • Written By: Helen Akers
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2014
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The expression "bells on" is an English idiom that means a high degree of enthusiasm. A common form of the saying is "I'll be there with bells on." It is often said in response to a social invitation or a future event. At times it is said sarcastically to describe a lack of enthusiasm for having to show up at work or some other dreaded function.

People typically use the phrase "bells on" to communicate excitement or some extreme sentiment. It is a humorous saying that can be satirical. Some people use the saying "bells on" to make comparisons between creative works, such as television shows, novels or theatrical presentations. The saying usually indicates that the creative work is a notch above a similar work in terms of humor, likability or expression.

"Bells on" can also convey some sense of style or drama. It can be used as an indication to expect liveliness or attention getting behavior. A person may use the expression to give a heads up that his behavior may be unusually engaging or that he has a high degree of anticipation about an upcoming social event, such as a birthday party.

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In England, Australia, and the United States, the phrase "bells on" has slightly different meanings. It tends to be used in British humor to describe an object. The idiom is used to indicate that something is more extreme than something else. In the United States and Australia, the saying is used to describe an action that a person commits with a high amount of energy and excitement.

The saying "I'll be there with bells on" is also used in a sarcastic manner in the United States. Some individuals use it to indicate that they may not actually want to go somewhere or do something, but that they will make every effort to "fake it." For example, someone may not like his job or want to interact with his in-laws over a holiday dinner. He may use the idiom to actually indicate his lack of enthusiasm.

Almost any social event is game for the saying "bells on." Some may use the idiom to express the fact that others at the event should be on the lookout for their disingenuous behavior. There are plenty of people who enjoy being the life of the party. They may enjoy instigating playful social behavior and ensuring that everyone has a good time at social gatherings.

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anon282206
Post 13

I read that peddlers wore them to announce their arrival into remote areas. They would silence the bells when they would go through areas that were treacherous.

John57
Post 12

My son has always been one of those class clowns and life of the party person. If he was alive when they used jesters, I could easily imagine him being one of them.

This is why the description of a jester, with bells on displaying a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about something, makes sense to me.

He looks for any reason to have a party or celebration, and is extremely social. Once when we was young, my mom told him he would probably come to her birthday party with bells on.

He looked at her with a confused look on his face, but didn't forget what she said. A few days later when we were getting ready to leave for her party, he was looking for bells to take with him.

We have laughed about that ever since, and always picture someone who is excited and enthusiastic when we think of someone with bells on.

LisaLou
Post 11

Most of the time when I hear this expression, it has a negative reference. My brother really doesn't like social situations, and sometimes you almost have to drag him to go places.

Many times when I ask him if he is going to be somewhere, he comments that he will be there with bells on. In our family, we all know what he means when he says this.

It usually means he really doesn't want to bother with the event, but he will make the effort to be there. He usually shows up, and most of the time is in good spirits. We just all know he would rather be home working in the garage than endure another social event.

I don't know where he ever heard this expression, but we all know what he means if he tells us this.

SarahSon
Post 10

As long as I can remember, my grandma has used this saying. She always referred to it in a positive way like she was looking forward to something.

As a girl, when she would say this, I would always have pictures of bells on her feet when she would walk in to a room. She never did, but whenever I hear this saying, she is the first person I think of.

When we were getting ready for my wedding, she was so excited, and kept saying she would be there with bells on. She was also one of those people who always looked on the bright side of things, and her enthusiasm was often contagious.

honeybees
Post 9

Every one of these explanations makes sense to me. When I picture someone with bells on, the first thing I think of is the noise the bells make.

In my mind, I picture this as a way to either draw attention to something or someone. For some people the sound of the bells would be positive and encouraging, and for others it could be down right annoying - maybe that is where the sarcastic part could come in to play.

Whenever I see a parade of horses that have bells on, this is something that gets my attention right away. In this situation, I like the sound of the bells.

If someone is wearing them on a shirt and they constantly make a lot of noise, this is where I would get pretty annoyed.

Charred
Post 8

@hamje32 - There are many cases in history were people wore bells on their attire, not just the jester’s costumes. For example the Jewish high priest wore bells when he went into the temple to offer sacrifices. Of course the bells weren’t meant for festivity, necessarily, but to indicate that the sacrifice had been made.

Also early immigrants to the United States arrived in horse and buggy decorated with bells as a way to signal their arrival, in addition to indicating a festive spirit. Maybe if we all wore bells then we would have a clearer insight into where the phrase really came from!

hamje32
Post 7

It’s an interesting phrase. I’ve heard it used to convey enthusiasm, but never to express sarcasm. I wonder how far back it dates and what its true etymology is.

Bells usually convey festivity. Think of wedding bells, church bells, Santa bells, bells used in concert, dinner bells and what have you. There are a myriad of contexts where bells are used and they all suggest liveliness and joy.

I guess the only exception would be a bell that you toll in the case of a funeral. You might remember the expression “for whom the bell tolls.” That’s the only negative context I can think of. All others are positive.

discographer
Post 6

@ddljohn-- That's really interesting! I've heard a different explanation of where it originated from, but that makes a lot of sense too.

The story I heard is that horses and carriages used to be decorated with bells on to way to a special celebration, event or parade. This represented that they were in the festive spirit and ready to be part of the event.

It actually sounds similar to the jester explanation in that way. Either way, it's about being ready to join the celebrations.

@indemnifyme-- You know, I've never thought of this before, but maybe Christmas might have something to do with it. Because Santa's reindeer had bells on too. And the sound of bells are heard in many Christmas songs, especially Jingle Bells. So the festive spirit bit could be taken from the bells of Christmas reindeer.

ceilingcat
Post 5

I have a friend who is always using this phrase. She uses it both seriously and sarcastically, and sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what she means. Usually I can pick it up in the context of the conversation, but there have been a couple of times I've been wrong!

I actually really hate phrases that have two meanings that are total opposites like this one does. Saying "I'll be there with bells on" can mean you're really excited about something, or it can mean you're really not excited about something. I don't like it!

ddljohn
Post 4

@anamur-- I think it's a really old idiom and it originated during the time when there were court jesters.

I'm sure you've seen pictures of court jesters before. If you noticed, the hats of court jesters has metal bells on. And court jesters used to entertain guests at social events and were always very energetic and enthusiastic. So when people wanted to talk about arriving at an even energetic and enthusiastic, they started to say that they would come with bells on, like a court jester.

This idiom is really similar to one I heard when I was in the UK- "with knobs on." It means the same thing.

indemnifyme
Post 3

@KaBoom - It definitely is kind of a funny phrase. If the phrase weren't so old, I would say maybe it originated because of those Christmas sweatshirts with the craft bells on them. Those sweatshirts are pretty laughable, and I could totally see them inspiring a humorous or sarcastic phrase.

However, I doubt this is the way the phrase originated. Maybe it has something to do with sleigh bells? Or church bells? I have no idea, but it would be really interesting to find out.

KaBoom
Post 2

I've always thought this particular phrase was really funny. After all, how many times do you see someone actually wearing a bell? Outside of a costume, or a really tacky Christmas sweatshirt, very few outfits actually incorporate any kind of bells.

So when someone says they'll "be there with bells on," I always picture the person wearing a bell on their outfit. This would of course be really silly, and might not necessarily convey the enthusiasm usually meant by this phrase. Still, it makes for some funny mental pictures.

serenesurface
Post 1

My uncle said this to me the other day. My birthday is coming up and we're going to be having a birthday party at our house. My mom had me call all our relatives and invite them personally. When I called my uncle and asked him to come, he said he will come with bells on.

I had no idea what he meant! I just said okay, laughed and hung up. I hope he didn't mean it sarcastically, I don't think he did because we get along really well with him. And he's like a father figure to me. I think he just meant that he's really excited to come for my birthday.

I wonder where this expression came from. When I hear this phrase, I think of church bells for some reason! It doesn't make much sense! It's such an odd way to describe excitement and enthusiasm.

Does anyone know where this idiom originated from? I'm curious!

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