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pulling out all the stops, all the bells and whistles..

February 24, 2012

Ever wonder where expressions come from? I do.

While listening to NPR today (that’s National Public Radio), I heard an interesting man being interviewed. He plays a theater organ in an old movie house in Seattle.

Before “talkies,” films with sound, were invented, there were only silent films. To fill the silence, and make the movie-going experience far more entertaining and powerful, organists were employed to perform, and sometimes improvise a musical score to accompany the movie.

In a few parts of the country, there are movie houses that still have massive pipe organs, where silent films are shown, and where incredibly accomplished and inventive organists play.

Silent films used to be an international passion, just as movies with sound are today. The organists and the organs were very important. So important, two sayings still often used by the English-speaking public are metaphors which relate to organs. Silent film pipe organ performances and music found their way into the collective unconscious of people who speak English.

“Pulling out all the stops.” When someone says that, he or she means something like.. putting all of one’s energy into a certain endeavor, applying all of one’s force, something like that.

How does this phrase relate to organs?

Pipe organs have tons of levers called “stops.” Each one relates to a certain sound or instrument. These levers can be pulled out, or pushed in. Pulling out a stop can activate a sound that mimics a trumpet, or a clarinet, or one of many other instruments.

Pipe organs are incredibly loud. A pipe organ played with all the stops pulled out means all the sounds available are activated, and played at once. The noise can be beyond deafening. Pulling out all the stops means the organ is operating at its full power.

Ok, so how about bells and whistles? When we use this phrase, we mean a product or device of some sort that has all the features available. Take cars, for example.. The same type of car can have very few features, many features, or all the ones available for that particular type. If it has all the features available, we say it has all the bells and whistles.

So how does this relate to pipe organs?

Theater organs were set up to not only mimic the sounds of other instruments, but to create sound effects as well. Many sound-producing devices, such as bells and whistles, could be controlled and activated by the organist, as he or she sat at the keyboards of the organ.

A pipe organ with lots of attachments and sound effects could literally be said to have all the bells and whistles.

I’m glad I tuned in to NPR today, and learned the origins of two commonly used expressions.

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