I'll be there with bells on

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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Grizzly » Wed Feb 16, 2005 8:34 pm

I was told that this term comes from the 18th century wilderness roads in PA. Something to do with wagons and oxen bells but after that I'm lost. Anyone know where this originates?
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:36 pm

Max,

WITH BELLS ON [late 19th century]]: 1) ready to celebrate, dressed up and ready for a good time. “Of course I’ll come – I’ll be there with bells.” 2) very definitely, without a doubt, emphatically. Used especially in affirming that one will be present at a certain time and place. “Don’t worry. I’ll be there with bells on.”

There is no definite etymology on this, but here are some theories:

1) perhaps the suggestion is that one will be very conspicuous, like a train or a fire engine with bells

2) the bells that adorned a jester’s outfit

3) the practice in the Old West of outfitting the lead animals with of a freight-hauling team with bells, to announce their presents and thus minimize accidents

4) a metaphoric expression alluding to decorating oneself or one’s clothing with little bells for some special performance or occasion. This was an expression in early 20th-century theater possibly inspired by the Mother Goose Rhyme:
<“Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, / To see a fine women upon a fine horse; / With rings on her
fingers and bells on her toes, / She shall have music wherever she goes.”>
(Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Dictionary of American Slang by Chapman)

___________________________

Random House’s Word Maven

I recently replied to an invitation, stating that I would be there ‘with bells on.’ After replying, I realized that I really did not have a clue what that means. Can you help me?

Your native-speaker intuition is certainly operating beautifully; you used the expression absolutely correctly and in absolutely the right circumstance, even if you didn't know what you were saying.

‘With bells on,’ in its most common current use, is an informal expression that means 'eagerly; ready to enjoy oneself', and your response was sure to please your host. There's the added connotation that you're not only looking forward to the occasion (usually some sort of party) but that you're all set to contribute to the festivities and add to everyone else's enjoyment. And "I'll be there..." is so often heard preceding the "bells" part that they're virtually inseparable. You did well.

The interesting thing about ‘with bells on’ is that its use is amazingly restricted. With rare exceptions, it's a frozen, formulaic expression, part of a social ritual, used almost exclusively to respond to an invitation to a festive event. And part of its normal function is to assure your host that you not only plan to attend, but that you're sure it's going to be one swell party.

You've probably never heard anyone talk about "being there with bells on" when asked casually to go to a movie, for example. And I doubt that you'd respond to a letter of acceptance to graduate school at Harvard by saying you'll be there in September with bells on. It simply wouldn't do.

There are special variations, of course. F. Scott Fitzgerald left the final preposition off in his 1922 ‘Beautiful & Damned,’ where we see, "All-ll-ll righty. I'll be there with bells." And there is an occasional use of ‘with bells on’ as a more general intensifier, something to add a little punch. A 1930 cite says, "You can have it...with bells on," and one from 1960 reads (rather rudely, I think), "The same to you, with bells on." But mostly, it's party time.

As for origins, various sources postulate a rather vague association between bells and gala gatherings ("rings on her fingers and bells on her toes," and all that). I myself have always thought of the hat worn by the royal fool--the court jester's cap--with its little round, tinkling bells signaling merriment. So enjoy your party. Have fun. Make a fool of yourself.
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Ken G – February 16, 2005
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Feb 17, 2005 9:13 am

Just a theory, but Morris dancers who invariably dance with bells on their ankles do not usually wear them to and from the place they are to dance.

A dancer with bells on would be fully dressed and ready to go.
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Feb 17, 2005 9:09 pm

"A 1930 cite says, "You can have it...with bells on," and one from 1960 reads (rather rudely, I think), "The same to you, with bells on." But mostly, it's party time."
.. this use of "bells on" doesn't seem to have the same etymology, to my mind, as "Being there with bells on" .. I can remember using, and still do from time to time, both of these expressions but never linked them source-wise .. I personally subscribe to the jester etymology .. but the second usage is more a kid's cheeky intensifier linked to swearing as in "Same to you fuckwit/dickhead/peabrain" .. what thinkest thou oh learned wizards ?? ..

WoZ of Aus 18/02/05
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Dan Crocodile » Wed Feb 23, 2005 10:49 pm

My research from The Writers Block site tells me the following;
"The expression I’ll be there with bells on indicates the speaker’s assurance of arrival at an event and has been ascribed to American settlers, whose Conestoga wagons often arrived at their destinations with bronze bells ringing to announce the arrival of a party with friendly intentions." by S. D. Liddiard
and I'm happy with that, it makes sense to me.
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by lorilou » Mon Feb 28, 2005 8:11 pm

"With bells on" comes from the settlement of the American West during the mid 19th century. Persons traveling the wagon trains bought trinkets (bells) to use to bribe the Native Americans for safe passage. If you arrived in California with "bells on", you had not met any hostile natives that needed bribing.
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Mar 02, 2005 12:20 am

.. the last two supposed derivations of this saying are typical examples of EVERYTHING belongs to America .. and therefore all sayings must derive from that great source .. what a load of rubbish .. there is ample evidence that this saying has many earlier precedences but as usual these will be ignored in favour of the American solution .. such a shame .. *sigh* .. it is noticeable that even within the Amewrican solution they can't agree as evidenced by the above two explanations ..

WoZ of Aus 02/03/05
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I'll be there with bells on

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Mar 02, 2005 3:54 am

Wiz, But I thought it was you that have always told us that we shouldn’t rely too much on reliable sources and that we should be listening more guys in bars. (<:) Well the last two “derivations” are what you might get when you listen to such folks, and the 4 possibilities in my original response are what you get from people who do this for a living. And BTW the Old West suggestion was made by none other that that British ‘American chauvinist pig’ Jonathon Green, our original Wordwizard!

Ken – February 1, 2004
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