The belle of the ball
What's the meaning of the phrase 'The belle of the ball'?
The most attractive woman at a social gathering.
What's the origin of the phrase 'The belle of the ball'?
This phrase is, of course, 'the belle of the ball', not 'the bell of the ball', as it is sometimes incorrectly spelled.
A ball is of course a social gathering for dancing etc. 'Belle', meaning 'fair; beautiful', was adopted into English in the 17th century from the Old French 'bele' and ultimately from the Latin 'bella'. A specific meaning, the one used in 'belle of the ball', was 'a lady who is the reigning beauty of a place'. This was known by at least 1622 when John Fletcher used it in his comic play The Beggars Bush:
"Vandunke's daughter, The dainty black-ey'd belle."
'Belle' has been, and continues to be, used in various French adjectival phrases, for example, 'belle assemblée' - brilliant assembly; 'belle dame' - fair lady; 'belle laide' - an attractively ugly woman; 'belle passion' - tender passion. The term 'belle of the ball' is of English origin. At least, the earliest citation of it that I can find is from an English journal, The New Monthly Magazine, 1822:
"The partner of partners, the belle of the ball."