Thursday 7 December 2017


Sometimes an etymology is so obvious, once you see it, that you can't think why you never saw it at all. A dumbbell was, originally, a bell that didn't ring.

The idea is pretty simple really, bell-ringing is a form of exercise. Church bells are big heavy things and a bell-ringer must really tug on that rope. I once wrote a post explaining that to ring a full peal of bells takes several hours and a huge amount of energy (was that seven years ago? I've been doing this for much too long). The problem is that, as a form of regular keep-fit, it's a trifle noisy and will get on your neighbours' nerves.

Hence the dumb-bell. The first reference is from Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711:

For my own part, when I am in town, for want of these opportunities, I exercise my self an hour every morning upon a dumb bell, that is placed in a corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require in the most profound silence.  My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.

So what exactly did such a mute piece of gym equipment look like? Well, here's one from the Seventeenth Century that survives (I think) at Knole House in Kent:

Basically, the sticky-out bits have weights on them. When you pull on the rope (from below) they rotate, as a bell does, and then, through momentum, wind the rope up again. You now give another pull and so on and so forth. There's a little more information to be had by following this link to a modern dumb bell manufacturer.

At some point somebody seems to have taken those sticks with the weights on the end off the dumb bell and started using them on their own. Thus the modern dumbbell.

In other news, tonight I shall be at Waterstones Piccadilly from seven until nine signing A Short History of Drunkenness, other books by me, cheques, Czechs and off.

On Monday, I shall be doing my Dickens show in Clapham.

Next Saturday (the 16th) I shall be at Libreria bookshop in Shoreditch doing a reading at seven. 

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