Rotary Club

Old phone terms hang on

Some words outlast the things they were coined to accompany, simply because there’s no good alternative.

When you write an e-mail on the keyboard, you “type,” though those keystrokes have nothing to do with the small pieces of lead or physical impressions on a piece of paper that gave “type” its name. When was the last time you actually put gloves in the “glove compartment” of your car? And if you use the telephone, what do you call the act of pressing the numbered buttons? “Dialing.” Yet there is no “dial,” and hasn’t been on most phones for more than thirty-five years.

When telephones were first invented, the only way to place a call was to get the attention of the operator. You’d pick up the earpiece and either turn a handle that sent a signal that you were on the line, or jiggle the earpiece hook to let her know you were there. (It was almost never a “him.”) Even today, we say a busy phone is “ringing off the hook,” and when we terminate a call, we “hang up.”

Later, when phones became more common, most had a “dial” with numbers and letters. Phone numbers had “exchanges,” a name that denoted the neighborhood where those phone numbers were located, though the exchange names often had nothing to do with their neighborhoods. You dialed the first two letters of the exchange, followed by five numbers. Many of those exchanges were immortalized in popular culture: Think the movie BUtterfield 8 and the songs BEechwood 4-5789 and PEennsylvania 6-5000. (The latter was and still is the phone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City.)

Then, in the 1960s, came touch-tone phones (“Touch Tone” used to be a trademark, but is no longer), and the keypad started to replace the rotary dial. The all-numeric phone number followed, also immortalized in popular culture (867-5309/Jenny, for example). Yet we persist in saying we “dial” that number.

Of course, we haven’t totally lost the letters on that “dial” (we rarely call it a “keypad”). Businesses love to have numbers that spell out words: 1-800-MATTRES, (“leave off the last ‘s’ for ‘savings,’”) “1-800-LAWYERS,” and similar iterations. But because so few people are familiar with the relationship between letters and numbers on the phone, smart businesses also give their numeric equivalents.

Nothing has come along to replace the “dial” in language, and isn’t likely to for some time, despite attempts to do so.

Now can anyone explain why the telephone keypad has its “1” in the upper left corner, while calculators and computer keyboards generally have the “1” at the lower left corner?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,