bel·​fry ˈbel-frē How to pronounce belfry (audio)
plural belfries
: a bell tower
especially : one surmounting or attached to another structure
: a room or framework for enclosing a bell
: head sense 2a
batty in the belfry

Illustration of belfry

Illustration of belfry
  • belfry 1

Did you know?

Surprisingly, belfry does not come from bell, and early belfries did not contain bells at all. Belfry comes from the Middle English berfrey, a term for a wooden tower used in medieval sieges. The structure could be rolled up to a fortification wall so that warriors hidden inside could storm the battlements. Over time, the term was applied to other types of shelters and towers, many of which had bells in them. This association of berfrey with bell towers, seems to have influenced the dissimilation of the first r in berfrey to an l, and people began representing this pronunciation in writing with variants such as bellfray, belfrey, and belfry (the last of which has become the standard spelling). On a metaphorical note, someone who has "bats in the belfry" is insane or eccentric. This phrase is responsible for the use of bats for "insane" (as in "Are you completely bats?") and the occasional use of belfry for "head" ("He's not quite right in the belfry").

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web In the ’50s it was replaced by an ugly, modern belfry. Brian T. Allen, National Review, 1 Apr. 2023 Not even in Petco’s belfry. Nick Canepacolumnist, San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 June 2022 The presence of bats in the belfry, as a metaphor for disordered thinking, is usually taken to refer to the way bats would flutter around the upper stories of distressed churches, but a larger madness, Eklöf thinks, is responsible for their absence. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 20 Feb. 2023 Among the many looming ecological disasters that terrify us today, one that only a handful of people have contemplated as sufficiently looming and terrifying is the loss of the bats in our belfry. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 20 Feb. 2023 The church is scarred by rockets and shells, but the golden dome above its blasted belfry still gleams in the fading autumn light. Elena Becatoros, The Christian Science Monitor, 14 Sep. 2022 Beyond was the belfry of the cathedral, in which the minaret of the old mosque had been buried. Aatish Taseer Richard Mosse, New York Times, 3 Nov. 2022 Carving on belfry window of Holy Trinity Church in the High Caucasus of Northern Georgia looks a little... Gemma Tarlach, Discover Magazine, 1 June 2016 Even the minaret is buried in the belfry of the church. Michael Snyder, New York Times, 17 Nov. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'belfry.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English belfrey, berfrey, bell tower, siege tower, from Anglo-French *berfrei, *belfrei, of Germanic origin (akin to Middle High German bërvrit siege tower); akin to Old High German bergan to shelter and to Old English frith peace, refuge — more at bury

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of belfry was in the 15th century


Dictionary Entries Near belfry

Cite this Entry

“Belfry.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


bel·​fry ˈbel-frē How to pronounce belfry (audio)
plural belfries
: a tower or a room in a tower for a bell or set of bells

Middle English belfrey, berfrey "bell tower, war tower," from early French berfroi "war tower," of Germanic origin

Word Origin
In our day belfry means "bell tower"; the first syllable is a perfect match with bell, whatever -fry might mean. But in fact belfry does not derive from bell, and the original meaning of its medieval French source, berfroi, was not "bell tower," but rather "siege tower." A siege tower was a wheeled wooden structure that was pushed up to the walls of a besieged fortress to provide shelter and a base of attack for the besiegers. A variant of French berfroi that was also borrowed into English was belfroi. The resemblance of this word to Middle English belle, "bell," most likely set in motion a shift in meaning that gave belfry its current meaning.

More from Merriam-Webster on belfry

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