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Last year my father was ill and once he’d recovered his health he booked in with a personal trainer to recover his strength.
This isn’t as frivolous as it might sound. My dad is now into his eighties and not regaining his strength would have possibly meant a slow decline to oblivion.
But I’m happy to report that he’s back at it, playing tennis, skiing and all the rest.
But one of the results of his time with the personal trainer is that he now has a collection of dumbbells.
So the question is, why are the things that weightlifters use to exercise called dumbbells?
It seems that the answer lies in the same reason that pilots are trained on flight simulators. An unskillful new pilot might be dangerous and historically an unskillful new church bell ringer—if not dangerous—was potentially annoying.
A dumbbell was at first literally a dumb bell, which is one that couldn’t ring, one that had no voice.
In honor of the inauguration of President Barak Obama, Trinity Church in New York rang its bells for three hours. I heard an interview with one of the bell ringers and he said it was an exhausting job but exhilarating when they can make the music they want; something called a full peal.
It’s the exhausting part that interests us here because the first citation we have in 1711 in the Oxford English Dictionary for dumbbell is not for a silent bell being used by students, but instead a silent bell being used by exercise enthusiasts.
A church bell usually resides in a steeple and the exercise involved has to do with repeatedly pulling on a rope.
The dumbbells most people exercise with today more closely resemble heavy hand-bells with their clappers taken out.
I see in my web surfing that the word dumbbell is also applied to people. This is simply an adoption of dumbbell in place of the word dumb.
The word dumb since Old English—for more than 1000 years—was restricted to the meaning of “unable to talk.”
Dumb only came to mean “stupid” later. However the centuries when dumb did not mean “stupid” represent a time when this word was out of step with its own history. All the while in other Germanic languages the sister words to dumb certainly meant “stupid” and the Indo-European root dheubh that led to dumb meant “confused,” “dizzy” or “stupid.”
It had a sense of “mental impairment” that evolved not only into these two meanings of dumb, but into the word deaf as well.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.