Bells and Whistles: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 21, 2023

"Bells and whistles" is an idiom that describes the attractive, additional extras and features of any item, usually used to sell or promote the thing. In addition, the expression is American and was first cited in 1971.

In short:

  • "Bells and whistles" are extra features or enhancements that are not essential, but add an appeal to something.
  • "Bells and whistles" can also mean unnecessary or excessive features or accessories that make something more complicated, expensive, or difficult to use.

What Does "Bells and Whistles" Mean?

The phrase "bells and whistles" is an idiom that usually describes something with many extra options, making it more flashy but not automatically more efficient.

The phrase can also be used to express admiration or criticism, depending on the context and tone of the speaker.

For example, someone who likes technology might say:

"I love my new laptop. It has all the "bells and whistles" I need for work and entertainment."

On the other hand, someone who prefers simplicity might say:

"I don't need all these "bells and whistles" on my new laptop. I just want something that works fast and reliably."

The phrase can also be used in different contexts, such as:

  • We can say that a person with many skills or talents has a lot of "bells and whistles."
  • We can say that a restaurant has a lot of "bells and whistles" if it has a lot of decorations, music, or entertainment.

Some variations and related expressions of this phrase are:

  • All the "bells and whistles" means all the possible extra features or enhancements that something can have.
  • Without (the) "bells and whistles": This means without any extra features or enhancements that are not essential.

Where Does "Bells and Whistles" Come From?

The idiom "bells and whistles" traces back to the world of trains and other locomotives during the early 20th century. Most of them had literal "bells and whistles" that would signal when they arrived, departed, or made their presence known while chugging down the track. The vehicles do not need these sounds, yet they add excitement and fun for the passengers and bystanders.

Historical Example

The earliest recorded use of the idiom "bells and whistles" in print is from 1971, in an article about a new car model:

"The car has all the bells and whistles you could want: power steering, power brakes, power windows, air conditioning."

10 Examples of "Bells and Whistles" in Sentences

Here are some examples of how to use the idiom "bells and whistles" in sentences:

  • Quite frankly, I don't need a fancy smartphone with all the bells and whistles. I need something that can make calls and send texts.
  • The new restaurant has a lot of bells and whistles: live music, exotic cuisine, and fancy cocktails. However, I still prefer the old one with its simple and cozy atmosphere.
  • The latest version of the software has some new bells and whistles: a redesigned interface and a chat feature. But it also has some bugs and glitches that the company needs to fix.
  • She bought a new dress with all the bells and whistles: sequins and beads. Absolutely off the charts!
  • He likes to travel with all the bells and whistles: first-class tickets, luxury hotels, and private tours. What can I say? He doesn't mind spending a lot of money on his vacations.
  • The new bike has some nice bells and whistles: a comfortable seat, a smooth gear system, and a bright light. However, it has some drawbacks: it's heavy, expensive, and hard to park.
  • She doesn't care about the bells and whistles of her job: the salary, the benefits, the perks, and everything. She loves what she does and is happy helping people. She's one with the good souls.
  • He added some bells and whistles to his presentation: graphics, animations, and sound effects. He wanted to make it more engaging and memorable for the audience. I hope that things will work out.
  • She bought a new camera with all the bells and whistles but never used them. She prefers to take simple and natural photos.
  • He doesn't like movies with too many bells and whistles: special effects and explosions. He prefers movies with good stories and realistic characters.

Examples of "Bells and Whistles" in Pop Culture

The idiom "bells and whistles" has been used in various forms of pop culture, such as songs, movies, TV shows, books, etc.

Here are some examples:

  • In the song "Bells and Whistles" by Andrew Bird, the singer uses the idiom to describe his relationship with a woman who is not satisfied with him:

    "She wants bells and whistles. She wants fireworks and symphonies. She wants the whole world to know. She wants bells and whistles"

  • In the movie "The Social Network" (2010), Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) uses the idiom to dismiss the idea of adding more features to his website, Facebook:

    "I don't want to add more bells and whistles until we know what we have is stable."

  • In the TV show "The Office" (US version), season 4 episode 4, Jim Halpert (played by John Krasinski) uses the idiom to mock Dwight Schrute's (played by Rainn Wilson) elaborate security system for his desk:

    Jim: Wow. Bells and whistles. Dwight: Yeah. Motion sensors, infrared lasers. It’s pretty much impenetrable. Jim: Unless you have a key.

  • In the book "The Hunger Games" (2008) by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen (the protagonist) uses the idiom to describe the extravagant outfits of the people in the Capitol:

    "They want me to see everything they’ve done to me. All the bells and whistles that are supposed to make me desirable."

Other Ways to Say "Bells and Whistles"

There are other ways to say "bells and whistles" with similar meanings. Here are some synonyms and alternatives for the idiom:

  • Flair
  • Frills
  • Gimmicks
  • Trimmings
  • Showy
  • Ostentatious
  • Extras
  • Features
  • Fancy
  • Flashy

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Bells and Whistles"

  • What is the origin of "bells and whistles"?

The origin of "bells and whistles" is unclear, but it is likely related to using "bells and whistles" in trains and locomotives in early times.

  • What are some synonyms for "bells and whistles"?

Some synonyms for "bells and whistles" are extras, features, flair, frills, gimmicks, trimmings, etc.

  • What are some antonyms for "bells and whistles"?

Some antonyms for "bells and whistles" are basic, simple, plain, minimal, essential, practical, functional, etc.

  • Is "bells and whistles" a positive or negative idiom?

It depends on the context and the tone of the speaker. "Bells and whistles" can be used positively or neutrally, and it can also be used negatively or sarcastically.

  • How do you use "bells and whistles" in a sentence?

You can use "bells and whistles" as a noun phrase to describe the extra features or accessories of something. You can also use it as an adjective phrase to modify a noun.

Example: (as a noun) : From my point of view, this car has all the "bells and whistles" you could want. The perfect car for any occassion!

  • What other idioms use the word "bell or whistle"?

Some other idioms that use the word bell or whistle are ring a bell (to sound familiar or remind someone of something), blow the whistle (to expose or report wrongdoing or corruption), whistle-blower (a person who tells or registers misconduct or crime), and more.

  • Can you use "bells and whistles" for people and things?

Yes, you can use "bells and whistles" for people as well as things.

Example: She has all the "bells and whistles" of a successful lawyer. She's intelligent, kind, and a certified cutie pie!

  • Can you use "bells and whistles" in a question?

Yes, you can use "bells and whistles" in a question.

Example: What other kind of "bells and whistles" does this hotel offer? So far, their services align with my expectations.

  • Can you use "bells and whistles" in a negative sentence?

Yes, you can use "bells and whistles" in a negative sentence.

Example: I don't like cars with too many "bells and whistles." Besides, they are hard to maintain and expensive to repair.

  • Can you use "bells and whistles" in a comparative sentence?

Yes, you can use "bells and whistles" in a comparative sentence.

Example: This laptop has more “bells and whistles” than yours. In fact, it has a bigger screen, a faster processor, and a longer battery life.

Final Thoughts About "Bells and Whistles"

"Bells and whistles" is an idiom that can describe the extra features or accessories of something that make it more attractive or impressive. However, it can also imply something is unnecessary or excessive, making the whole thing more complicated or expensive.

To summarize:

  • "Bells and whistles" refers to extra features or accessories that are not essential but make something more appealing or impressive.
  • The idiom is of American origin and dates back to the early 1970s.
  • The idiom can be used positively, neutrally, or negatively depending on the context and the speaker's tone.
  • The idiom can be used as a noun phrase or an adjective phrase.
  • The idiom has synonyms and antonyms with similar or opposite meanings.
  • Lastly, the idiom is related to other expressions that use a bell or whistle.

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