Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

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Still Learning…

During a recent relaxing holiday in Burgundy I excelled — reading two paperbacks. I seldom read books, but daily read almost every page of two national newspapers.

I thought it unwise to commence a third book (our holiday was coming to an end), so I chose to browse a Readers Digest very large volume: The Origins of Words & Phrases. Naturally I focused on words relevant to campanology!


In Anglo-Saxon times a gold ring was a symbol of wealth and status — the work comes from the same root as RANK. In Wagner's opera the ring of Nibelunges, a ring is an object of power, an idea reinforced by JRR Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings


Although you will find bells (as well as bats*) in a belfry, the Old English work bell is NOT related to belfry — surprisingly.

A belfry was originally a mobile wooden tower used in the Middle Ages by armies besieging a fortification. The word originally had an "RR, not an "L" in the middle and came from the Old French "berfrei". The first part probably meant "to protect", and the second "peace and protection".

The first belfry connected with a church was a separate bell tower. The word began to be used for a room or storey where bells were hung — in the middle of the 16th century.


One of the Old English words recorded as early as 725AD. A way of dealing with a person who is causing problems is to ‘give them enough rope' — give them enough action that they can bring about their own downfall. Similarly, someone who is in a desperate position or a state of near collapse may be described as ‘being on the ropes'.

To ‘show someone the ropes' is to teach then the established way of doing things. The theme developed from the mid-19th century and the days of sailing ships — skill in handling ropes — ‘learn the ropes' and ‘know the ropes'.

‘Ropey', meaning not very good, is RAF slang from the early 1940s. It probably derives from the phrase ‘money for old rope', although another idea links to the old biplanes festooned with ‘ropes' or supporting wires that were then being replaced by more modern Spitfires and Hurricanes.


Like cloak, clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic words clagan and clocca. The original word meant bell, later taking on the sense of ‘the striking mechanism of a watch'. Gradually clock came to be applied not to the sound made by the instrument, but to the instrument itself.

John Kinchin.

(* Evesham Bell Tower was recently inspected by an ecologist as part of the work that it to be carried out to its stonework. His inspection showed no bats at all. He was interested to hear that we'd had a bat in the Ringing Chamber many years ago, which fluttered around among 12 ropes going up and down without being touched by any of them. I contacted the Worcestershire bat lady next day and asked how to get rid of it. She cautioned against touching a bat without a licence, because very heavy fines can apply. She did say they don't like noise, and if it's got in, it will get out on its own — and so it did, because we never saw it again. Yes, the Tower has a clock that strikes the quarters throughout the day and night, so that might be the best way to keep bats away! Now squirrels; they are something else… Ed)