The Grammarphobia Blog

Bells, bats, and belfries

Q: I enjoyed Origins of the Specious, but my enjoyment was tempered by the omission of “belfry.” Is it derived from the word “bell” or is that just one more etymology that’s too good to be true?

A: We omitted quite a few language myths from Origins of the Specious. We had to draw the line somewhere, and unfortunately, “belfry” ended up on the cutting-room floor.

But we’re glad you’ve asked us about it. The belief that “belfry” has something to do with bells is one of Pat’s favorite myths. And we now find that it didn’t get into the blog either. So here it is! 

What comes to mind when you hear the word “belfry”? Bats and bells, probably. That’s where bats hang out, and that’s where bells ring.

It’s reasonable to conclude that the origin of “belfry” had something to do with bells. But you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Linguists believe the word ultimately comes from the prehistoric Germanic bergfrid, meaning a place of shelter. But the word entered English in the 12th century via the Old French berfrei, a siege tower. No bells here.

For the first few hundred years, the word was spelled all sorts of ways in English (“berefrei,” “berfrey”, “barfray,” etc.), and it meant a siege tower, a movable structure used to protect attackers besieging a fortification.

The word wasn’t used for a bell tower until 1440, about the same time the first “r” in the spellings became an “l” (“belfray,” “belfroy,” “belfrie,” and finally “belfry”).

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary say the “bel” spelling was undoubtedly popularized by the use of the term for a bell tower.

But let’s not leave the bats hanging. For all we know, bats have taken up residence in belfries for hundreds of years. The expression “bats in the belfry,” though, comes from another meaning of “belfry.”

In the early 1900s, “belfry” was a slang expression for someone’s head. To have “bats in the belfry” was to be nuts – in other words, batty.

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