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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