The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

When I got married back in 2000, we spent our honeymoon in London. A friend of my wife’s asked her, “What are you guys going to do all day, besides look at Old Ben?” I was a little aggrieved at this description of my anatomy, until I realized she had meant to refer to “Big Ben,” which as everyone knows is the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, right? Wrong. Yes, the clock tower is an iconic symbol of London. But no, it’s not called Big Ben.


The only way to use Big Ben to check the time is to wait for it to strike—which it does every hour. Big Ben is actually the 13-ton bell that sits inside the clock tower. (A series of smaller bells plays the quarter-hour chimes, the famous Westminster Quarters.) The origin of the Big Ben nickname is uncertain: it may refer to Sir Benjamin Hall, the engineer who led the rebuilding of Parliament in the 1850s, or to “Big Ben” Caunt, a popular heavyweight boxing champ of the time.

So if Big Ben is the bell, what’s the famous tower called? For many years, the official name of the clock tower was—wait for it!—“Clock Tower.” Nice. In 2012, however, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years on the British throne. In her honor, Parliament voted to rename the tower-not-formerly-known-as-Big-Ben as the Elizabeth Tower. After all, Westminster’s other spire, the one at the southwest corner, is known as the Victoria Tower. At this point, pretty much the whole building is named for a couple of old queens.

Quick Quiz: In what 1985 movie does a driver get trapped circling a Westminster roundabout for hours, repeatedly saying, “Look, kids! There’s Big Ben and Parliament”?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.