Why Do We Call Them ‘Dumbbells’?

Fitness isn’t ‘dumb,’ so why do we insult our gym equipment this way?

Dumbbells have an interesting history.
Dumbbells have an interesting history. / Twenty47Studio/Moment via Getty Images

“Liberty or death.” So said Joseph Addison, an 18th century poet, scholar, essayist, and politician who scribbled a line in a play (“But chains or conquest, liberty or death”) that likely informed the famous Patrick Henry quote, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Addison was certainly an intellectual, and while that quote resonates throughout democratic history, he also popularized another phrase that resonates more with gym bros throughout the world.

That’s because Addison (seemingly) pioneered the word dumbbell.

In centuries past, before fitness equipment was refined and one’s deltoids and biceps could be worked with ruthless efficiency by bodybuilding routines, those interested in physical exertion had to make do with whatever was available. For Addison, it was a rope and pulley system that resembled the mechanism used to ring church bells. Because pulling on the rope and engaging with the lead weight attached to it didn’t result in any actual chimes, it was known as a “dumb” bell.

How pervasive the term was prior to Addison is unclear, but the author is credited with being the first to use it in a major print publication. In 1711, Addison wrote in his periodical The Spectator, which favored the now-defunct Whig political party, that:

“For my own part, when I am in town, I exercise myself an hour every morning upon a dumb bell that is placed in a corner of my room, and [it] pleases me the more because it does everything I require of it in most profound silence. My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me whilst I am ringing.”

Less clear is when this apparatus, which was unwieldy and had to be installed a level above the fitness area, fell out of favor and the word dumbbell came to mean a handheld weight. It’s possible Addison himself created such confusion, since he wrote in that same issue of The Spectator about “short sticks” with “plugs of lead” he used to “exercise the limbs.”

Later in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin referred to his regimen for physical well-being, prescribing himself dumbbell routines as well as nudity. “I rise almost every morning and sit in my chamber without any clothes on whatever, half an hour or hour, according to the season, either reading or writing,” he wrote. Franklin did not specify whether he hefted dumbbells while nude, but anything is possible.

Dumbbell as an Insult

Dumbbell was obviously intended to slander the silent bell, not the individual hefting it. But over time, dumbbell (or dumb-bell) also became a pejorative for someone demonstrating ignorance or stupidity.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang dates dumbbell as an insult to 1858, when Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary that “I see dumb-bells in the minister’s study and some of their dumbness gets into his sermons.”

It’s certainly possible dumb-bell informed the etymology of another noun for stupidity, the venerable dumbass, which began circulating in print circa 1934.

Why a Kettlebell Is Called a Kettlebell

Kettlebells, which originated in the Soviet Union, grew popular in the States for their versatility and distribution of weight. Unfortunately, the origin of the word is murkier than it is for dumbbells. It’s possible that people referred to the ball-shaped weights as girya (kettlebells) because they resemble a kettle without a spout.

They were also originally intended for commerce: kettlebells acted as counterweights to measure out market goods. At some point, people began hefting and throwing them, realizing appreciable strength and muscle gains. They often came in 36.1-pound increments known as poods. Americans took to them as a fitness fad in the early 2000s; they’ve since settled into a common piece of gym equipment.

Even so, dumbbells are probably the de facto exercise tool, in addition to remaining a versatile insult. (No one thinks to call a moron a kettlebell.) Who knows what Addison would think of dumbbells growing pervasive in culture, both as a slang term and a fitness pursuit? As a scholar and an exercise enthusiast, he probably would have been pleased. You’ve probably come across another famous Addison quote: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”

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