Q: Origin of "dumb-bell"?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 12 16:07:13 UTC 2010

Not what you mean, but as applied to people the term apparently began as a
pun meaning "a mute or unspeaking young woman," then (presumably)
"a slow-witted young woman" and finally "a dolt (regardless of sex)."

The latter sense became frequent during the 1920s: a long time to wait, one
would think.

Some of the prehistory, from Newspaper Archive:

1869 _The Cape and Natal News_ (Apr. 19) 10: The Canterbury Hall has a new
choreographic spectacle, entitle "The Charmed Cap, or the Dumb Belles of

1872 _The Sun & Central Press_ (London) (Dec. 26) 4: Little boys may like to
know that, as columbines are not allowed to talk in public, harlequins in
private practice always dance with dumb belles.

1873 _The Waukesha Freeman_ (July 31) 1: I really saw two dumb _belles_ up
here that weighed three hundred pounds, they were from the deaf and dumb
asylum, down the river.

1881 _Marion [O.] Daily Star_ (Nov. 7) [2]: HUMOROUS...Prof. Bell's wife is
a deaf mute - a dumb bell.

1886 _Le Mars [Ia.] Semi-Weekly Sentinel_ (Apr. 30) [3]: Second College
Student - ...By George, they're beautiful girls but I can't make 'em talk.
They didn't say half a dozen words the whole time we were gone. First
College Student - Oh, well, you had your practice on the dumb belles all the
same, I see.

1889 _The Evening Gazette_ (Sterling, Ill.) (March. 21 [3]:
Two funny plays tonight. See the "Dumb-belle" tonight. - See the "Irish
Doctor" tonight.

1891 _Titusville [Pa.] Herald_ (March 23) [3]: Dumb belles are not popular
in drawing rooms, even during Lent.

On Mon, Apr 12, 2010 at 10:51 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Q: Origin of "dumb-bell"?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> A correspondent asks:
> >I heard a derivation for dumbbell as a literally a "dumb bell". That
> >is one without a clapper used by bell ringers to practice and "work
> >out" without making noise. And later it became workout equipment.
> For both senses -- for practicing bell-ringing and for exercise --
> the OED (1989) has the same date and "author" -- 1711, Addison's
> Spectator.  Although for exercise, its first quotation is  [1711
> ADDISON Spect. No. 115 {page}8 (Described under the name of
> {sigma}{kappa}{iota}{omicron}{mu}{alpha}{chi}{giacu}{alpha}).]
> ("giacu" is "iota (acute).")
> Is there any more recent opinion on which came first?  (Bell-ringing
> seems the obvious choice.)
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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