Bells and Whistles – Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Gather ’round as I explain the meaning of the term “bells and whistles” and show you how to use it properly. Believe it or not, I’ve seen this term used incorrectly, so I’m here to iron out the details in this quick guide.

Bells and Whistles Meaning

Bells and Whistles Origin Meaning

The plural noun “bells and whistles” is what we use to describe extra features or enhancements that aren’t exactly essential but tend to add an extra level of appeal and excitement to something. You can apply it to a product, a person or an idea.

Basically, bells and whistles are the proverbial cherry on top, the icing on the cake, or the dazzling sequins on a show-stopping outfit. They’re not always necessary, but they sure do make things more fun and enticing!

I can’t help but think of the book publishing world, aka my world. Sure, I can create a great story with a gorgeous cover. But producing a special edition with gold foiling, colored page edges, metal corners, and interior illustrations just sounds way better, and readers go gaga over it. I don’t have to add all those bells and whistles to my books, but I want to because it makes them even cooler!

Bells and Whistles Origin/Etymology

You probably already guessed it, but the phrase “bells and whistles” comes from 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.

Were they needed? No, probably not. I mean, if there’s a train coming, you can hear it without all the bells and whistles. But it makes the whole experience more fun and builds excitement for the train goers.

What “Without Bells and Whistles” Means

When someone says, “I want it without the bells and whistles,” it means they just want something straight-up, with no special features or enhancements. In other words, it’s the no-frills, bare-bones version of a product or service.

What Are the Synonyms of Bells and Whistles?

  • Frills
  • Extras
  • Embellishments
  • Upgrades
  • Fancy features
  • Added attractions
  • Flourishes

Bells and Whistles Examples in a Sentence

Bells and Whistles Origin Meaning 1
  • The latest smartphone model comes with all the bells and whistles included for free, like a high-resolution camera and facial recognition software.
  • My dad’s new luxury car has so many bells and whistles that it took him weeks to learn how to use them all.
  • Jude’s new apartment, though small, had a few bells and whistles, like a rooftop terrace and in-house gym facilities.
  • I love that the basic software package is affordable and does the job without all the fancy bells and whistles you get with the more expensive and pointless version.
  • Maria planned a lavish wedding in the Caribbean with all the bells and whistles, from a live orchestra to a custom-made gown and even live doves.

I Enjoy Bells and Whistles

I’m the type of person who, if there’s a prettier version of something, usually gets it. But I usually get the version without the bells and whistles when it comes to other stuff, like software or tech. I guess it really does depend on the person and the item or service at hand. At least now you understand what the saying really means, and you can now use it correctly!