ring a bell 5

ring a bell: meaning and explanation

If someone says that something rings a bell, then they are saying that it sounds familiar – it triggers a memory, but not a clear or complete one.

This is most commonly used with names. It’s impossible to remember everyone that you meet, and I’m sure you’ve experienced situations where you hear a name, and can’t quite remember whether you have met the person or not. You kind of recognise the name, but you can’t recall the person. The name ‘rings a bell’.

This can be a useful expression to use to ‘buy time’, when you’re trying to remember something: “hmmm, the name rings a bell, let me think…”.

This expression is often used negatively (to mean that something doesn’t sound familiar, e.g. “the name doesn’t ring any bells”) and as a question, to ask if someone remembers something (e.g. “does the name Peter Smith ring any bells?”).

Have a go at this dictation exercise to hear this expression being used in context – how much can you understand?

Dictation #1

Accent: England (RP)

... ?
isn’t ringing ...do photo ?
The isn’t ringing any ...do have a photo him?

…do you have a photo of him?…

Notice the weak pronunciation of ‘do’ and ‘you’ as /də jə/ (or almost /djə/). This is very common in questions, and can make them difficult to understand.

Discussion question

Write your answer to this question in the comments section, and I’ll get back to you with some feedback:

  • Tell me a story (real or made up) about a time when you bumped into someone who knew you, but who you didn’t recognise. Try and use the expression ‘to ring a bell’.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

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My family and I met a person in a little town in 2007. But we hadn’t seen each other until 2016. We can say that the situation happened the other way around because when we bumped into him he didn’t remember us at all but we did remember his whole name. We asked him whether our names rang any bells but as much as we tried to help him, he couldn’t remember anything until we sent him a photo of him with us.


Once I met a school time colleague in an event. I remembered him, but he was with a friend, who I didn’t know. For my surprise, his friend knew my name and said hello as if he hadn’t seen me for a long time. His face didn’t ring any bells, but I pretended I recognized him, because I have a bad memory for faces and he could really know me.

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