Toll, Knell, and Tocsin

By Maeve Maddox

The following headlines lead me to assume that the bride or groom or both did not survive the ceremony:

Wedding Bells Toll For A Bride From Camelot—Philadelphia news site, 1986

Wedding bells toll for Tiger—Cape Cod Times, 2004

Wedding bells toll in Conn. for gay couples—Boston Globe, 2008

Wedding bells toll for Richard Marx, Daisy Fuentes—Business Standard, 2015

However, each of these headlines appeared over articles about weddings that—at the time anyway—did not go awry.

There was a time when “to toll a bell” just meant to pull on a rope attached to a really big bell. Since at least 1620, however, when John Donne wrote his famous devotional, the verb toll in connection with the ringing of bells has been associated with death.

Bells toll at funerals. At weddings, they peal.

I suspect that headline writers reach for the word toll because they associate it with the title of the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Unfamiliar with Hemingway’s source, they imagine that toll goes with any kind of bell, including wedding bells.

Hemingway took his title from a meditation on death by John Donne (1572-1631). Donne lived in London during a plague epidemic. Every time someone died, the church bells tolled. Lacking online news updates or Twitter, people would send a messenger to find out the identity of the latest victim. Donne tells his readers not to bother. The bell is tolling for everyone:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Another gloomy word for ringing a bell is knell.

knell verb: To ring slowly and solemnly, as for a death or at a funeral, to toll.

knell noun: The sound made by a bell when struck or rung, especially the sound of a bell rung slowly and solemnly, as immediately after a death or at a funeral.

In modern usage, the noun is more common than the verb. The phrase “death knell is a figurative expression that indicates something is on the brink of extinction. Unmodified, knell is a synonym for end. Here are recent examples of usage:

Sound the Knell for Free Cell Phone Games

Super Bowl the Knell for TV Sports?

Does New House Bill Sound the Death Knell for Estate Tax?

China’s Communist Party Sounds Death Knell for Arrest, Conviction Quotas

Does Election Outcome Ring Death Knell for Religious Freedom?

Greek, French Elections Sound Death Knell for Austerity

Bells have long been associated with religious ceremony, but church bells have also served as community alarm signals because the sound of them can be heard across great distances.

The word for a bell rung as an alarm signal is tocsin. The word is often used figuratively as a synonym for alarm or warning:

Two stories about British dental care sound a tocsin about government involvement in health care

Representative Buyer’s comments and widespread reports in the press that basic training has gone “soft” should sound a tocsin for policymakers concerned with the institutional integrity of the armed forces. 

A tolling bell denotes sorrow. Unless your intention is to imply that getting married is the equivalent of a death sentence, better say that wedding bells are pealingchiming, or simply ringing.

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