An Interesting Idiom: “I’ll Be There With Bells On”

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m working these days as a carriage driver, and with the holiday season in full swing, I’ve been looking for ways to trick out my horse and carriage. These days I’m feeling like Christmas trees are completely passé and if you’re looking for some true thrills in holiday decorating, you need to look into the art and science of attempting to decorate a live animal. It’s a little complicated when you consider that the thing you’re decorating will likely do its best to eat your decorations, but you also have to contend with the possibility (okay, high probability) of blizzard conditions or just general moisture followed by sub-zero temperatures for hours on end. Your average decorations probably just aren’t going to hold up.

Our carriage company does most of the actual decorating of vehicles — and particularly for us new drivers, we never know which carriage we’re going to end up driving anyway, so it’s best not to get too invested — but drivers can help boost their business with a little bling. The veteran drivers all an incredible assortment of decorating tricks (Scooter’s Santa dummy, mounted over his horse’s back, is a hit with the kids while simultaneously giving me the willies) but for my part I mostly intend to spend my hard-earned cash on endless layers of thermals, snow pants, rain gear and chemical toe-warmers. Still, I’d like to have a little something to dress up the horses I’ll be driving for the occasion, so I have a few strings of battery-operated lights and I’ve been looking into sleigh bells.

My esteemed colleague Jim seems to find my efforts with Christmas lights laughable -- and routinely does his best to fling them off -- but passersby certainly love them. And when it really gets dark, the lights look like little stars against the black of Jim's mane. <3

I bought a few bags of craft-store bells that I’ll be giving a go, though I’d be kind of surprised if they lasted longer than a week. And because I like to live in a land of delusion, I also searched the Internet for real harness bells. I found quite a few places still producing beautiful, high-quality bells of all kinds for use on harnesses (I will take one of each, please), but alas, poverty and other priorities prevent me from actually purchasing any.

My quest did yield a potential origin for an interesting idiom, however. (That’s what I love about the Internet: you might be just shopping for something, but you learn some vocab instead.) You’ve probably heard the phrase “I’ll be there with bells on,” and it’s generally accepted to mean, “I will be attending the aforementioned function in my finest of finery.” Presumably there was a point in time where one might attend a party with literal bells on. (In the UK apparently the equivalent phrase is “with knobs on” instead, but honestly, I don’t want to even know what knobs are. If anyone tells me I will hear it in Graham Norton’s voice and all seriousness will be gone from this conversation.)

One possible origin of the phrase, however, comes from the days of horsedrawn transportation, when bells were often worn on a horse’s harness not just for the holiday festiveness of it but to ensure that other travelers on the road could hear you coming. If a partygoer arrived “with bells on,” it meant that they arrived safely having suffered no collisions or misfortunes. Or, somewhat more mundanely and assuming that everybody back then didn’t travel around with a large cacophony of bells at all times, simply that carriage horses were outfitted with bells for particularly festive occasions, the same way a partygoer would dress themselves to the nines for a special event.

The Phrase Finder offers an even more charming and detailed possible explanation for the idiom:

The settlement of US immigrants in Pennsylvania and other states. Their preferred means of transport were large, sturdy wooden carts, called Conestoga wagons. These were drawn by teams of horses or mules whose collars were fitted with headdresses of bells. George Stumway, in Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850, states that the wagoners personalised the bells to tunings of their liking and took great pride in them. If a wagon became stuck, a teamster who came to the rescue often asked for a set of bells as reward. Arriving at a destination without one’s bells hurt a driver’s professional pride, whereas getting there ‘with bells on’ was a source of satisfaction.

As I’m sure you can imagine, I will forthwith be demanding a set of bells as payment every time I perform a favor for a fellow motorist. Should’ve made the demand of the last person I gave a jumpstart to. “No sir, I shall not furnish forth the jumper cables until you reward me with bells! I demand that they be gleaming, sir! Gleaming!”

Of course, the phrase is pretty antiquated either way, but as a person who drives a horse and carriage, I suppose I can’t really point the finger at anything for being old-fashioned. If you’re more into the modern conveniences and highfalutin technology, perhaps you should take Nathan Bradley’s advice and replace “with bells on” with the much more practical “with sandwich in tow.” I think it could be the next big thing. As for myself, I’m now experiencing an intense urge to research the etymology of the word “highfalutin.” So maybe it’s best to just leave things there.

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15 thoughts on “An Interesting Idiom: “I’ll Be There With Bells On”

  1. Horses, bells, twinkling lights, AND word origins for “with bells on.” Be still my heart. Thanks for a fun post. Stay warm! I don’t suppose your gorgeous horse would tolerate reindeer antlers and a red nose?! My dog always seemed a bit embarrassed–with that “look what Mom’s making me do now” look–when I would put the reindeer antlers on him for a party.

    • Hah, I don’t know that he would really. The lights seem to be great attention-getters though and I’m trying to keep my look simple and classy. Like I bought white lights instead of colored ones so that there wouldn’t be any risk of the colors clashing with whatever color of decoration and upholstery I happen to have in whatever carriage I’ve been assigned that evening. Plus several of the other drivers have Santa hats for their horses and it’s nice for the decorations to look different on each rig.

      I did keep threatening to get a Santa hat for my dog Trudeau, but when I finally did it I only managed to get it on his head for about two seconds before he got it into his mouth instead. :D

  2. If you’re in a “crafty” mood, some strings of sequins sewn on a long tape to look like icicles would be smashing draped on Jim’s back. I doubt he would even notice they were there. In the meantime, I shall ask my Brit friend Sarah if she’s ever heard of “with knobs on”

  3. We have several sets of good brass bells, all of which are incredibly loud and unbelievably annoying…at least in my opinion. My husband, however, loves them and would use them all year round if I’d let him.

    What about a net light…the kind you would throw over a shrub? Maybe you could drape it over the harnessed horse like a blanket? Those red velvet bows are quick and easy and surprisingly tough, too. Just add a piece of floral wire or something to the normal crappy twist tie and you’re good to go. We have done XMas card pics with a big bow on the bottom of the collar, small ones down the mane (and forelock) and at the dock of the tail. I’ve hung the big bow on a piece of twine, too, and then you can just slip it over their head.

  4. Great post! You made me smile AND got me in the Christmas spirit. I can totally relate about the harness bells, I bought a single one someplace to hang on my front door, but it was not cheap. I would love to have a whole set someday. Guess I’ll have to wait until the filly grows up and I can afford a harness and cart first. I love the white lights, I hope they hold up. I have a DVD about sleighs and sleighbells, it talks about the history of the bells. Keep warm & keep the stories coming!

  5. Horsie looks gorgeous with! :) I just thought if Shaman would like it ;)

  6. Bells, schmells. I find them anoying, loud and obtrusive. Plus their continous ringing makes me wonder if I’ve gone just a tad insane. As least with my stereo set up I can turn the volume down or off.

    And although you’re a newbie you’re doing well. If you stick it out and don’t become a 95%er then you, too, can ask for a carriage of your very own next year. That’s when the fun begins… and you see how “Keeping up with the Jones” (or Slave Drivers) you can get.

  7. I think they call this Pimping your Ride in some necks of the woods…. :)

  8. Miss you Mack, love your blogs! Sounds like you are doing pretty well and having some fun. Hugs. Wendy

  9. Found out about “with knobs on” but can’t publish it here…

    In the meantime, how about some Twinkle horse glitter on Jim’s rump?

  10. I agree that the lights on the mane look a bit like stars. I have never decorated a live animal and probably never will, but the idea of the horse trying to eat the decorations amuses me.

  11. If only I would have known you needed carriage bells. I just went to one of the largest horse and equipment auctions in the region a few weeks ago and they always sell nice, leather harness bells for CHEAP. I mean, like 20-30 bucks…maybe if you need draft ones, or want the BIG bells a little more. If you do this gig again, let me know. The auction happens again in March. I would be happy to pick you up some bells.

    Happy driving! What city are you driving for?

  12. You make me laugh!

  13. I just did a search for the meaning of the phrase, trying to explain it to my grandchildren and I saw your post–most entertaining! What we take for granted is extraordinary, I guess in all senses of the word.

  14. Pingback: Bright Strange Things | All of Life’s Pressing Questions, Direct From the Internet

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