Q From Monika Mazurek, Poland: In several reviews of the new movie Warrior I listened to on BBC podcasts I heard the phrase to beat seven bells out of somebody, as in “this movie is basically about two men trying to beat seven bells out of each other”. I tried to find this phrase but it appears in very few dictionaries. What are the origins of the phrase? I’ve read somewhere a supposition that it may refer to bells measuring the half-hour intervals during watches on a ship.
A It’s almost exclusively a British expression today, still often encountered, though more commonly as knock seven bells. However, beat, smack, pound and other verbs can be used:
Now we have bombed seven bells out of [Libya’s] roads, ports, airfields, and other infrastructure, who will guarantee the rebuilding of everything that has been lost?
Evening Standard (London), 23 Aug. 2011.
A warrior association is appropriate for this idiom, since the origin is fighting ships and — as you have read — the ringing of bells to mark the passage of time on board. This is the usual explanation of its origin:
A total of eight bells are struck to end a watch; to knock seven bells out of someone implies pretty severe handling — without actually finishing him off.
Jackspeak, A Guide to British Naval Slang & Usage, by Rick Jolly, revised second edition 2007.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it appears several times in works by the American author Jack London, which made me wonder for a moment whether it actually originated in the US. But a British source was confirmed by news reports in London newspapers in early 1850 of ill treatment on board an emigrant ship to Australia:
Mr Bainbridge, on returning to the vessel, was knocked down by Mr Ross, and the captain wanted him or any of the malcontents to stand before him “and he’d knock seven bells out of them”.
The Examiner (London), 16 Feb. 1850.
As no newspaper carrying this report thought it necessary to explain the idiom, it is surely older still.