Monday, April 18, 2011


I've had various requests to cover various telephone-related vocabulary. Most of it is simple enough that I can do that thing that I think of as not-really-writing-a-legitimate-blog-post--that is, writing a big list of equivalent words. Some aspects might prove harder, though. Take, for instance, this email from someone I know:
I had a proposal from a US Co. today. For a British English speaker it was virtually incomprehensible unless you knew (which I didn't [BrE] twig [='understand'] until I'd read it for the 6th time) that a 'deck' was a mobile phone and a 'carrier' was what we call a service provider. The most unintelligible phrases included the statement that 'Carrier WAP-deck retail space largely dictates sales' and a sentence about 'On-deck carrier competitions'.
In this case, I think we're looking at more than a BrE/AmE difference. Deck, as far as I can tell, is industry jargon for a phone as a platform for a game.  Searching the web for "receive calls on your deck" gets zero matches (versus 232K matches for "receive calls on your cell").  It's not impossible to find this on UK websites (e.g. this one). So, I'm not convinced that that deck belongs here.

But there are enough others that do belong here. So, here's the list. No, wait! Here's the preface to the list:
  •  Items in [square brackets] are found in both dialects, with no indication in the OED that it is original to the dialect whose column it's in. Nevertheless, its counterpart in the other column is specific to that dialect.
  • Items marked * are found in the other dialect now too, though they are not original to it. 
  • I haven't included really slangy expressions here--that would just get out of control. Maybe another day.
  • They're in no sensible order whatsoever.
  • If they have a link, I've already discussed them in more detail--click to see.
  • Some corrections have been made (in green) since comments started coming in. Please see comments for more discussion of those...

mobile (phone)cell (phone), cellular phone
directory enquiries   directory assistance (aka information)

telephone directory  phone book*

service provider  carrier

answerphone /Ansaphone [answering machine]

dialling code   area code

bleeper  beeper (pager in both dialects too)

phone box, telephone call-box  (tele)phone booth

reverse-charge call   collect call*

dialling tone   dial tone

ex-directory   unlisted (of a person/telephone number)

freephone number (0800 number)   toll-free number (800 number)
hash keypound key
telesalestelephone soliciting (telemarketing in both too)
push-button phone*Touchtone phone*
0898 number900 number (premium in both)
1471 (pron. one-four-seven-one; identifies last caller)*69 (pron. star-sixty-nine; call-return)

The list credits: Thanks to the following people for suggesting some of the above differences: Mark Allen, Philip Nelkon, and Ofer at Tomedes). And to the OED and Better Half for confirming some. 

The other thing to mention here is the difference in verbs of telephoning, particularly BrE is to ring someone, to ring someone up or to give someone a ring. In AmE, one can use call in all of these cases. While call is not just AmE in this case, it is stereotypically American--so much so that I've taught myself to say phone, which is shared by both dialects and makes me feel less self-consciously American while not feeling like I'm in a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I don't know why saying ring makes me feel self-conscious when I've easily adapted to lots of other BrE words. Perhaps verbs are harder to make oneself at home in.

Why are there so many differences? That's relatively simple: the technology was introduced after these dialectal groups were well and truly separated--so, if a new word for something needs to be made up in one country, there's no reason why the other country should come up with the same word. In some cases, the technologies themselves took different paths. Similarly, (BrE) motorcars/(AmE) automobiles and road systems have hugely different vocabularies (click on the transportation tag for some--but I've yet to do the Big List of Car Parts).

A few other differences to mention:
(1) The sounds that phones make are different in different countries. When I first moved to South Africa, I mistakenly believed that everyone I tried to ring/call was on the phone, because the ring tone to me sounded more like the American busy/engaged signal than the 'ringing' sound. (I've also been tempted to think, in various countries, that the phone is broken--because the dial[ling] tone sounds 'angrier' than the American one.)
(2) The US and Canada share the country code '1' (hey, they started this whole telephone thing). Historically, one dial(l)ed the '1' to let the telephone exchange know that an area code was the next thing coming--and one still does have to prefix the number with '1' whenever one dials out of one's own area code. That evolved into a North American country code, when such things became relevant. In many other countries (including all of Europe that I've telephoned in and South Africa), when dial(l)ing a non-local number, the first thing you dial is '0'. But whereas the '1' is not represented as part of the area code in the US (it's separated from it by a dash), the '0' is represented as part of the dial(l)ing code in the UK. Here are examples of each, using government tax assistance numbers in each case, as they are presented on the agencies' web pages:
US: 1-800-829-1040
UK: 0845 300 3900
The tricky thing for USers to learn is that the 0 at the front of a UK-style number needs to go away when you dial from outside the country. So, if you wanted to phone the UK number from abroad, it would be:
+44 845 300 3900
And before the country code (44), one needs to dial the international access code, which has been 00 in every other country I've used a phone in, but is 011 in US (and Canada too?).  Another thing that surprises North Americans abroad is that in other countries, all the phone numbers don't have to have the same number of digits. For example, the London codes 0207 and 0208 are shorter than my city's code, 01273. And until a few years ago, they were even shorter (020).

Which is all to say that if you live in North America, you have a lot to learn about how telephones work when you go abroad. But if you live in the UK, you can travel a lot of places and still apply the same telephonic logic to the new country's phone numbers. Unless you're travel(l)ing to North America, of course.


PI said...

Another one to add might be "ansaphone" in the UK as equivalent to the US "answering machine" or "voicemail". I think this must be a company-name-gone-generic (like "to xerox" or "hand me a kleenex"), but it baffled me for a good long while.

Ben Zimmer said...

Do Brits still place "trunk calls"? That's a shibboleth in Murder on the Orient Express (an American trying to act British is betrayed by saying "I can always call my lawyers long-distance" instead of "I can always make a trunk call to my solicitors").

lynneguist said...

I purposefully left trunk call out as it's not really current, but maybe I shouldn't have!

PI--should I replace 'answerphone' in my list with 'ansaphone'? I was doing it based on what I've heard, but since one doesn't hear 'r's after vowels where I am, they sound the same!

bigteenmuscle said...

I think you avoid saying "ring" because you have to do that posh trilling R to say it: "Shall I rrring you latah?".

ella said...

I can attest to 011 for dialling out in Canada as well. Which is a little confusing as when ringing Canada from the UK as I had to dial 001 :)

chris perriman said...

do you have carrier & service provider in the wrong columns?

lynneguist said...

@chris perriman: Yes, I did. Thanks for pointing it out. Now corrected.

@Ella, thanks for confirmation!

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

What is the deal with this phone-as-a-verb thing? I'd never heard that before until I started watching The Good Wife, which is set in Chicago.

I thought it was something new, and it certainly does not sound natural to me.

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

Also, as we discussed on Twitter, I'm not so sure that you have 3G and WAP right.

While I've heard (well, read, really) WAP before, I have no idea what it means, off-hand. 3G (and 4G) are much more prevalent in AmE—at least, marketing-wise. I don't know how often it comes up in regular conversation.

(And, as I also noted on Twitter, "mobile phone" is beginning to creep into AmE usage.)

Georgia said...

"WAP" is American? I've never heard it. I hear references to "3G" phones all the time, though.

Anonymous said...

My own two cents: I (an AmE Speaker) don't think I've ever heard it called WAP, only 3G, and I almost feel there needs to be a 1 in front of "800-number."

lynneguist said...

OK, two votes against my WAP translation. It's in the US email that my acquaintance got, and I have seen it in the US, which is why I had a translation of it to hand.

But, apparently, they're slightly different--perhaps WAP is 2G.

In my experience, the US lags behind Europe on mobile technology, so maybe the reason I knew WAP as 3G was that I'd already been exposed to 3G here when it was just WAP in the US. Maybe?

At any rate, I'll strike it out.

chris perriman said...

Here in the UK I haven't heard WAP for a long time.
I seem to remember WAP was the very first generation of internet-enabled phones (my mother thought it stood for Words And Pictures, I always liked that) around the turn of the millennium, and 3G came in around 2005.

Matt Gordon said...

How about "ring off" vs. "hang up"?

lynneguist said...

@Matt Gordon: Aigh! I knew I'd missed something! I'm sure others will point out many more...

Very active commenting for late on a Sunday...hard to drag myself off to bed, but I must.

David Crosbie said...

Busy now has a meaning for me, but not the same as engaged. A busy digital number has dozens of callers — perhaps even more — held in queues. An old engaged number was an analogue line already in use by one caller.

And it was (usually) The number is engaged rather than The line is engaged. Much as I enjoyed this song, it took me ages to make out the title Busy Line and even longer to understand what it meant.

David Crosbie said...

Ben Zimmer

No, trunk calls are a thing of the past. They were calls made through the operator, who got the operator in another exchange to connect you. When direct long-distance dialling came in, what you call an area code was called an STD code — standing for Subscriber Trunk Dialling.

In fact, placing calls of any sort is a think of the past. We just dial.

David Crosbie said...


1. WAP was a protocol which preceded 3G. There was a time when the manufacturers were desperately pushing WAP phones, but the punters were waiting for 3G. Not that people understood the difference, but they knew that 3G was special because the Government had just made a killing auctioning future 3G licences.

2. What I say is non-rhotic ˈɑ:nsəˌfəʊn. Either spelling would fit, but answerphone is the one that looks right to me. Others may disagree.

David Crosbie said...


Phone has been a verb here for ages. The first citation in the OED is a quote from an 1889 trade publication remarking that phoned was often used for telephoned. In the past it was often spelled with an apostrophe: 'phoned.

Dianebrewster said...

Phone numbers in the uk are the same length - even the London ones - they just effectively have 2 area codes. One for inner London (0207) or outer (0208) and one for the district (eg 226 for around Islington / finsbury Park, 794 for hampstead) then a 4 digit number - bringing it to 11 -same as yours in Brighton. Afaik the district number is more geographical than local gov boundaries.

It's the same in other areas - in that I know if I see an 01323 no. It could be anywhere between Eastboune & Seaford but I know that 01323 49xxxx or 89xxxx are all Seaford.

Johnny E said...

I'd argue that phone booth and dial tone should both be starred -- on the other hand I'm a dual-nationality Hollywood-raised bastard child, so you may want to get a second opinion.

Steven Capsuto said...

Definitely "ansaphone" (not answerphone). I was about to post that correction when I noticed someone else already had.

It's one of those brand names that passed into generic use (like Hoover/hoover in the UK and "Scotch tape" in the U.S.).

I think the Ansaphone company is still around.

vp said...

Telephone number design is, in my opinion, one area in which North America comfortably beats Britain.

In the 20-or-so years I lived in the UK, London-area telephone numbers went through four different schemes.

The area code for London used to be simply "01", while that for everywhere else in the country was at least three digits (typical metropolitan bias, one might say!).

Then, in 1990, the "01" numbers ran out, so London shifted to either "071" or "081", with all numbers adding an extra digit in length. I remember that the "071" numbers were highly sought after, as denoting inner London rather than the outer suburbs.

In 1995 an extra "1" was inserted into all numbers. So, for example, the London area codes became "0171" and "0181".

Then in 2000 it all changed again to "020". (I had actually moved to the US by this point, but I do remember the change).

In the US/Canada/Caribbean system, by contrast, one single format (XXX) yyy-yyyy, has been used ever since 1951. Some new area codes have had to be introduced as numbers run out, but the overall format has remained the same.

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for refreshing my memory :)

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@David You're not clear about where "here" is, but neither was I. I'm from Long Island, New York. Nobody around here uses "phone" as a verb—at least, not transitively; "call" is generally the word.

N said...

I'm British and I've never seen it spelt ansaphone before now. Google is also giving me far more results for answerphone (55,500 for ansaphone, 3,730,000 for answerphone). My guess would be that when it became a generic term, people started spelling it the way it sounded like it was spelt.

If call-box means something which contains a payphone, I would call it a phonebox. Not that I talk about them much these days...

Talk to me said...

3G (UMTS) is always 3G and 2G(GSM) is always 2G. 2G is much slower than 3G as far as technology is concerned. There are different frequencies for those two generations in different countries but 3G is an industry standard and will work in the UK and in the US.

ButMadNNW said...

I love "engaged", if only because it enabled this joke from Shaun of the Dead:

[Shaun is trying to ring the girlfriend who dumped him the previous night]

Shaun: "Sh*t! She's engaged!"

Ed: "That was fast."

Ben Zimmer said...

For more on the history of "phone" as a verb, see my Word Routes column on "phoning it in."

David, thanks for explaining "trunk calls." But I always assumed "the line is engaged" was suitably British because it appears in the Beatles song, "You Won't See Me."

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@Ben I was actually going to mention that song before because the full line is "When I call you up, you're line's engaged". So it's doubly related!

Gary Lefman said...

I have not heard (telephone) call-box used in England, only phone box. Perhaps that has been the term in other countries in the UK? Anyway, I suppose it will fade into disuse over time since phone boxes are slowly being removed from public places as mobile phones become more prolific.

Dialling tone refers to just one call progress tone (the one one would hear when lifting the receiver and the PBX/PABX is ready for instructions), there are several dual-tone multi-frequency tones that have differences, such as en-GB number unobtainable and en-US fast-busy. Although in North America the fast-busy tone is played during several call states.

Picky said...

I suspect if you spell it "ansa" you should continue "fone", Ansafone being the name of the first really successful answer phone

Cath said...

As a random aside,many people in SA still refer to a public phone/ phone box affectionately as a tickey box- a reference to the amount of money needed to make a call many years ago.
For some reason the name has stuck, even though most of us have never use a 'tickey' (2.5c)

Stephen said...

Just to make things fun, in Australia you use 0011 to get an international voice line. But if you want to send a fax or use a modem you should use 0015, it gets a line that's allocated more bandwidth or something.

I'm just grateful that since mobiles arrived I can use + and it'll work anywhere.

And I notice that, as usual, Australia/New Zealand's usage is a mixture of the US and UK terms.

Richard Gadsden said...

Several things that are technologically wrong.

WAP is (was) a special version of the WWW for phones that had very slow connections, tiny screens and couldn't show pictures. It was both useless and expensive on both sides of the Atlantic, but it's not a dialect difference.

3G is a much faster connection technology for mobiles, which came in at about the same time as reasonable-sized screens which could look at the real WWW and not this special WAP bit. 3G happened first in Europe, and much later in the USA, so the word became popularised in BrE long before AmE caught up.

As for London codes, the correct code for London is 020 - the 7 or 8 is the first digit of the local number, not the STD code for London.

London was split into inner and outer London, between 071/0171 and 081/0181 from 1990-2000 and Londoners were told that 0171 becomes 0207 and 0181 becomes 0208 so, understandably, they continue to treat the numbers in that way, but if you want to make a local call, you need to dial an eight-digit number, not a seven-digit number. The new numbers that start with 3 are really confusing people - some media reports were that 0203 was a new code for London (sigh!).

There are other big differences between British and American telephones, for instance UK mobile numbers all start 07, and are more expensive to call (at least from a land-line; mobile-to-mobile calls are usually discounted) than land-line numbers (which start 01 or 02). US cell numbers are in land-line area codes and cost the same to call as a land-line in that area code, but the recipient pays the extra cost of the call (usually, these days, out of the inclusive minutes they get with their contract).

Because all mobile calls have to be made with all-digit-dialling in the UK, mobile numbers don't really have an STD code, and people break the number between code and local number at various different points.

Lynne mentions that 00 is the standard code for IDD in most places. It was standardised in the mid-nineties (1995 in the UK) and was different before that, the UK version was 010, but my favourite was that it was 19 in France, so all calls to the UK started 1944, which, as a child, I was told was in commemoration of D-Day and the liberation of France. Took me years to realise my Dad was winding me up.

Alan said...

Is there a regional difference in how people say a phone number with a repeated digit?

In Australia, we would say "four double-seven one" for 4771, but I have the impression people in the US would say "four seven seven one". I don't know how it would be said in Britain.

Simon K said...

I think most people in Britain would say "four double-seven one" for 4771. I certainly would.

David Crosbie said...


Although I hear (and sometimes use) one one for 11, double one is the standard in Britain — or at least it used to be.

What I don't hear quite so often is one double one for 111. (It was never double one one.) I don't think significant numbers of people say triple one. The number for emergency services is 999, and has always been nine nine nine.

David Crosbie said...

Like trunk call, there are a lot of terms no longer used which I suspect may be geographically specific. The most obvious are the the things operators used to say to callers.

Hold the line please.
Will you hold, caller?
Trying to connect you.
I have a Mr Bloggs on the line.
Will you accept the call?

Today's Bear with me would have struck the wrong note — lacking the strange blend of authority and servility which I think was more British than American.

gibberwacky said...

To my understanding WAP stood for "Wireless Application Protocol", but I suspect it's pretty obsolete at this point.

Moving from North America to Ireland, people have commented on the strangeness of how I break up phone number when giving it to someone (mobile or landline). I automatically give it in a xxx-xxx-xxxx pattern, and it seems that the different conventions for transcribing numbers bleeds over into different speech patterns.

Jane said...

I work in the mobile phone industry, so maybe I can clear up a few terms. I'm British and based in the UK now, but have lived and worked in France, Japan, Ukraine and the USA.

WAP is neither British nor American, nor the predecessor to 3G. It is an acronym for "Wireless Access Protocol" and was an attempt to design a protocol suite analogous to HTTP and HTML for the web. Its provenance is European. It never had the success envisioned for it (did I hear you say "design by committee?) and now that modern phones and networks are capable of running fully functioning browsers capable of rendering HTML5, WAP's sun is certainly setting.

"On deck" refers to an application that is pre-installed on the phone when you purchase it by the service provider (Orange's events app, for example). The inability to add applications to the iPhone is one of the reasons service providers like Android and Nokia. Again this term is used both in the US and the UK, as far as I know.

The phrase "Carrier WAP-deck retail space largely dictates sales" means that the set of retail-related WAP links that are preinstalled by the service provider largely dictates the actual sales that are made. That is, as every application programmer knows, getting pre-installed is a Very Good Thing.

3G refers to a technology used in the cell towers - the actual wireless network. It is equivalent to the earlier 2G, GSM, technology (which originated in Europe). The first 3G network in the world was launched in Japan. So as you run the HTTP protocol over, for example, WiFi, you can run the WAP protocol over 2G.

catranchknits said...

Something that confused me when I arrived in the UK was giving my phone number. In the US/Canada the format is the same and you would never say 'My phone number is 1 408 555 1212' you'd just start with the area code because everyone knows you dial the 1 first if you are calling from outside the area code. I tried to do the samething here by giving my mobile number without the 0 as I 1. didn't know it was common practice to give it and 2. didn't see the point in giving it since you've always got to dial it.

And because there is no standard way of saying a phone number in the UK, it's always confusing when someone repeats your own number back to you in a way different to you, you're never quite sure if it really is your number! (I think the comedian Michael McIntyre makes this comment too.)

lynneguist said...

I can't remember a time when a post has generated so many comments so quickly--except maybe when I did 'toilet'!

Thank you to everyone for all the technical know-how and corrections. I've made some changes (in green) in the post to make it less misleading, but give credit to you-all for those!

Saying phone numbers is an interesting matter...and I may say more about that in another blog post.

Graham said...

[I am BrE working in the UK for a US company in the telecoms field so I live with this every day!]

Your original correspondent seems to be confusing two completely different uses of "deck" and accidentally imagining a third. "Deck" never refers to a phone (handset/terminal/device/...). In "WAP-deck", "deck" is a technical term in the WAP protocol -- think of "WAP-deck" as meaning "web page" (by the way, if the proposer really meant "WAP-deck" then I suggest you do business with someone else -- WAP is pretty much dead even in North America -- but the proposer probably meant "mobile web page"). "On-deck" means "on some common platform" -- not specifically a phone or a game or anything else -- although in this context it either means "on the device" or "on the network". This usage of "on-deck" is not telecoms specific, as far as I know, and it is the phrase which has meaning, not the word "deck" (ask someone who has just said "on-deck" to explain what they meant by "deck" and they will look confused).

I think most BrE speakers (outside the industry or government) would say "phone company" rather than "service provider", wouldn't they? This is a complex and important term in my work so I may be out of touch with general usage: I would say "network operator" but I realise that is an industry term.

I know you said you would leave out really slangy expressions but you might want to mention "handy". This term is unknown in the UK or the US but is the normal (local language, although slang) term for a mobile phone in many places (Germany, parts of the Far East, etc) and is assumed by many EFL speakers to be the standard UK or US term!

Graham said...

@Dianebrewster: Actually phone numbers in the UK are not all the same length (0800 1111, 0800 111 999 and 0844 871 11 11 are all real numbers). UK phone numbering could be whole blog post in its own right!

And if you extend it to other countries, expect a long article in an academic journal! The biggest problem is countries where you can't tell the total length of the number until you have seen the last digit (like the UK case with 08001111, but in the UK I think that is the worst case -- you always know how long the number will be once you have seen 7 digits after the 0).

lynneguist said...

@graham and Diane: Even worse, the NHS Direct number: 0845 4647. I was delayed in phoning it once because I was looking for the rest of it! It's not an obviously irregular number like 999 for emergency services, since it starts with a well-known code. But then it just stops after 4 more digits!

David Crosbie said...

When I was growing up, I'm pretty sure the way we said numbers was influenced by the London norm, which in turn was constrained by the technology

London had a number of named local exchanges, each serving fewer than 10,000 subscribers. These were originally connected by operators, but by the time I was a little boy you could dial them as part of the number — from another London number, of course. All over the country we knew numbers like WHItehall one two one two. In London you could dial WHI — just as you could dial TIM for the Speaking Clock and (allegedly) M for Murder. As you can see in this photo, letters had number equivalents — — indeed they were just a friendly interface disguising numbers. So WHI was the same as 944 and my aunt's PALmer's Green was the same as 724. Eventually the numerical version became official, so my aunt;'s number was 724 6422.

This pattern of a three-figure local exchange number followed by a four figure subscriber number has disappeared from London, but survives in Edinburgh and quite possibly elsewhere.

The logic of the pattern was say

1. the first part as a separate unit: first a a name, later as three figures.

2. the unique part as a four-figure unit

Less logically, it became customary to say the four-figure part in two pairs. The end of WHItehall one two one two had the same rhythm and intonation as One man one vote.

This carried over into the way we said our five-figure number in Nottingham 74659 with an initial unit seven then two pairs four six and five nine.

Saying double changed the rhythm and intonation — at least for some speakers. My aunt's six four double two came out as three units, for example. But the division into pairs seemed to inhibit double across the boundary. I would say nine one one two and nine one double one — not *nine double one two or *nine triple one.

Ginger Yellow said...

"Is there a regional difference in how people say a phone number with a repeated digit?

In Australia, we would say "four double-seven one" for 4771, but I have the impression people in the US would say "four seven seven one". I don't know how it would be said in Britain."

The French say all their phone numbers in pairs of digits. So a repeated digit would depend on how the pair-breaks fall. It could be "seventy seven" in between two other pairs, or it could be "forty seven, seventy one". In French, obviously.

outerhoard said...

Comments on Australian usage:

Some from the BrE column: mobile, engaged, service provider, hash key. Some from the AmE column: phone book, answering machine, area code, dial tone, phone booth.

Engaged vs busy is interesting. I might say, "I tried to phone earlier but you were engaged", or "the phone was engaged", but the tone you get to tell you the other person is engaged I would call a "busy signal".

Phone book vs telephone directory might also merit a footnote. "Telephone directory" is not unheard of but sounds extrremely formal; "phone book" is the neutral register term. If you were a spokesperson for Telstra you'd probably call it by its name, the White Pages.

I hear rumours that phone booths are more or less extinct in modern America but there are still plenty here.

Anonymous said...

'Perhaps verbs are harder to make oneself at home in.'
Verbs are action packed and action needs our input. We can be more reserved with nouns? Less hands-on? Interesting line. Thank you.

Dana Knox said...

But Gordon P. Helmsley, did you never watch the movie E.T., and hear him ask to phone home?

As an aside, in America in general, it seems to me that mostly I hear that term, "phone home", when speaking of a satellite receiver, as it might be, syncing up with its DSL line (I'm probably not getting that right, I'm not very techie), in other words, mostly one gizmo calling another, rather than one human calling another. Maybe that's why they used it for ET, sort of this double meaning.

What is the British equivalent of this more tech-oriented meaning of "Phone home"?

Richard Sabey said...

@Richard Gadsden "mobile numbers don't really have an STD code, and people break the number between code and local number at various different points."

@catranchknits "because there is no standard way of saying a phone number in the UK, it's always confusing when someone repeats your own number back to you in a way different to you, you're never quite sure if it really is your number!"

I know just what you mean! I say my mobile's number as 07a bcde fghi, because the bcde part of it is a little pattern, and people invariably repeat it back to me as 07abc defghi.

Re double and triple

More British oddities are hundred and thousand. For example 817000 might be said as "eight one seven thousand". The phone number for calling BBC Radio 4 phone-in programmes is given as oh three seven hundred one hundred four four four.

We also use the multiples of ten from ten to ninety, though they are used only if nothing follows except another multiple of ten. For example 304050 might be said as "thirty forty fifty".

Graham said...

As well as not using "double" (which is something I first noticed with letters as my surname/last name contains a repeated letter which always confuses AmE hearers if I say "double"), AmE does not seem to use "oh" for zero. It causes less problem to the hearer than "double" but I don't think I have ever heard an AmE colleague say "oh" for zero.

Heather said...

I worked tech support for a cell phone company in the US for too many years.

1. In the US, for three numbers in a row, each number is said individually, but for four numbers, they are divided into 2 larger numbers. eg 477 would be four seven seven, but 4771 would be forty-seven, seventy one. This is really annoying in the case of numbers starting with a 1 (eg 1693), because it's easy to confuse sixteen and sixty. Also, both start with six, so if you are typing along with the caller, you have to backspace to put in the 1.

2. "Mobile" in reference to a cell phone is actually fairly common in the American south, but the pronunciation of the stress is different. Instead of saying "MOWble phone", many southerners (AL, MS, southern GA) say "mowBILE phone" with a long I in the second syllable. (Fortunately the other variation ("cellica phone") is gradually going away.)

barnoid said...

The only instance of "Ansaphone" I can think of is the title of a song by Pulp. Which inclines me to think that it might be more common as a spelling in the North of England, as "ansa" is pretty much phonetically how they pronounce answer (it's how Jarvis Cocker of Sheffield pronounces it in the song).

Being a Southerner myself I'd always spell it "answerphone".

mollymooly said...

@Lynne: "But whereas the '1' is not represented as part of the area code in the US (it's separated from it by a dash), it is represented as part of the dial(l)ing code in the UK."

Might be worth changing the second "it" to "the '0'" for clarity.

The point is also true in Ireland. Instructions for phoning from abroad (what's the American for "roaming"?) will carefully tell you to "leave out the 0" from the Irish area code.

One Irish-specific feature: the "yellow pages" is the "golden pages". It's still yellow, mind.

Anonymous said...

All the terms you've listed in your comment about not understanding "Carrier WAP-deck retail space largely dictates sales' and a sentence about 'On-deck carrier competitions'" are jargon specific to smart phone programmers, per a quick Wiki search.

WAP=WAP=wireless application protocol.

A WAP deck is the equivalent of a Web page, the card being the portion of the Web page that can be seen on the screen.
When browsing using a mobile phone, you can't load an entire full page at once, so you see it in parts. Mobile phone programmers invented WML = Wireless Markup Language; compare this to what computer browser pages are written in, which is HTML=Hypertext Markup Language.
To address the limitations of WAP devices, WML uses the metaphor of card decks, and each page is referred to as a card. The card is the basic unit of navigation and user interface. The user can view only card at a time. WML browsers read the whole deck (complete document) from the server to minimize interaction with the server. Consequently, when flipping (navigating) between the cards in a deck, the browser does not contact the server. This eliminates delays (because each card contains very little text and users are likely to move quickly from one card to another).
In other words, having all the cards of a web page (its whole deck) loaded onto a phone all at once means the phone's browser doesn't keep having to go to the cellphone service provider for more and more parts of the page each time the human navigates in a different direction.

Anonymous said...

I remember as a child in the early '60s regularly seeing a newspaper advert "Let Ansafone answer your 'phone". As I had no experience of answering machines, I used to find it vaguely puzzling.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@Dana OK, you got me with that. I suppose I've just lexicalized "ET phone home" as some sort of non-standard alien-speak. Though I'm also aware of the satelline-related usage.

@David The U.S. also used named exchanges back in the day; usually the first two digits after the area code were letters. For example, the phone numbers reserve for movies started with KL5 (555), which was read as Klondike-5. I would venture to guess that local municipalities each came up with their own mnemonics. Where I live, we used to have GEneral-1 and GEneral-2; that was before my time, but you can still sometimes see them on old signs and such.

@Alan, Simon, David: The method of saying double and triple digits probably varies more with the person and the specific string of numbers than the dialect. I've definitely each "double" and "triple" in AmE, just as I've heard "hundred" and "thousand" if the last 2 or 3 digits happen to be zeroes.

@Heather Not everyone uses that method of grouping. As I mentioned above, it likely depends both on the person and the specific string of numbers. I, personally, usually pronounce all digits individually (though I rarely say "zero" in a phone number—it's always "oh").

@Lynne You haven't mentioned the fact that "service provider" is used in the U.S., as in "Internet service provider". I would presume that originated before the Internet started coming from the cable company, so it likely is related to telephony. Also, I think the term "carrier" refers more to the company providing your cellphone service, rather than your home phone service. And you left out the generic "phone company"—which, at least around here, usually refers to a single entity (e.g. Verizon), such that the cable company offering you home phone service need not mention a competing brand name in their commercials.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...


Yes some of us knew about your named exchanges, thanks to Glenn Millers's Pennsylvania 6-5000.

I didn't know that you used the first two letters. Still, your examples and Miller's result in a three-character code like ours for local exchanges. Could this just reflect the constraints of the technology?

[The Miller tune would translate as seven three six, five oh double oh.]

Yes, we now use hundred, and I'm not sure we don't use thousand. But this is for us a recent development. Digital equipment now allows the creation of memorable numbers — like the one quoted by Richard Sabey

Brian said...

@David Crosbie

That Glenn Miller number is still the phone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. (Note that they have the toll-free 1-800 number at the top but the local number, with the traditional Manhattan area code 212, in the logo.)

@Gordon and others:

My American cell phone ends in two zeros, and I regularly give it out as "XXX Xty-X hundred" with no difficulties.

I never use "double" or "triple," but "oh" for "zero" is definitely used in the US, although probably less so in business, in the interests of clarity and formality.

HarlequiNQB said...

I'm surprised you left out the numbers for the Emergency Services (Which I know I don't need to point out as being 999 in the UK and 911 in the US).

I feel it's relevant because I've never heard anyone say "Call the emergency services!" (although they might say call the police, or an ambulance). Much more common would be "Call 999!", or "Dial 911!"

Marc L said...

Regarding the American use of "phone" and "call." Here in New Jersey we phone someone, or call someone. But the two are not interchangeable; e.g., "Did you call Joe?"
"I phoned him yesterday."
Call is more common, but phyone is still used, although it tends to be the more formal of the two usages.

David Crosbie said...

Brian, that's fascinating!

But how do you say 1.212.736.5000 ?

AndyJ said...

@mollymooly. I'm guessing that one of the reasons the directory in Ireland is called Golden Pages, is due to Yellow Pages (and the walking fingers logo) being registered trademarks in the UK. The original owner was British Telecom before it split off the Yell business. It is possible BT also registered the trade mark in the Republic of Ireland as a safeguard.

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@David Yeah, NANP phone numbers consist of a 3-digit area code (usually designating a population, county, region, or state), a 3-digit exchange (usually designating a city or local area), and a 4-digit subscriber number. The old alphabetic system usually used the first two letters to match the first two digits of the exchange, though usage varied. Take a look at that Wikipedia entry for a much fuller description.

Thus, for the Pennsylvania Hotel, it's PEnnsylvania-6-5000, or 736-5000. I would say the full phone number as one, two one two, seven three six, five thousand.

@Brian Yeah, I didn't mean to say that the zeroes were ever called "double" or "triple"; that's usually reserved for non-zero digits. For example, some people say "triple eight" when referring to the toll-free 888 area code. Oftentimes, when other numbers are in multiples, the usage of "double" or "triple" will be used as a marketing device, to help you remember the number.

Speaking of a phone number relevant to this discussion: the phone number for Empire Carpet is fashioned into a jingle as such: eight hundred, five eight eight, two three hundred, Empire!.

@HarlequiNQB I meant to mention this before, but I forgot. While the general public refers to the U.S. emergency service number as "nine one one", those on the inside tend to refer to it as "nine-eleven". Naturally, this became confusing (and somewhat ironic) after 9/11, but I don't think the practice ever stopped.

While the general public tends to refer to the UK (EU?) emergency service number as "nine nine nine", I wouldn't be surprised if those on the inside referred to it as "triple nine".

AndyJ said...

@Gordon P Helmsley. No, across continental Europe the number for the emergency services is 112, which incidently also works in the UK.

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@AndyJ Oh, I guess I had my memory backwards. Thanks.

AndyJ said...

Apologies to Gordon P Hemsley for misspelling his name. And I should also have said "across most of continetal Europe". Ireland also uses 999 (and 112).

Brian said...

@David Crosbie

If I were giving that number to someone in the US or Canada in a formal context, it would probably be "two-one-two, seven-three-six, five-zero, zero-zero."

It might start with "area code two-one-two..." instead, and the pause in the zeros would be for clarity: usually, I reel off the last four digits in a string. The 1 prefix for long distance would be understood. To a friend, I might make the last four digits "five thousand."

If the last four numbers looked like a recognizable year, it might be read that way, such as "seventeen seventy-six."

@Gordon P. Hemsley

There's also "one-eight-hundred-fifty-four-Giant," a jingle that can probably be sung by anyone from New England, since Giant Glass has sponsored Red Sox broadcasts for years.

Am I correct in my recollection that such spelling numbers are less common outside North America?

David Crosbie said...

There's some early-ish American terminology in the popular gospel hymn Royal Telephone written in 1919. I have contrasting recordings by a slick White male duo and a hoarse Black female duo. To my surprise, both can be heard from on line: Blue Sky Boys and Sister Mary Nelson. And the lyrics can be read here. The interesting words are:

We forgo this one. All those songs that begin Hello Central don't make much sense in Britain.

on the line
In Britain this means 'at the other end of the line and wanting to speak to you'. I'm not sure whether it's used logically in
Central's never busy, always on the line

give this royal line a call
We also say Give me a ring and, more recently, Give me a bell.

I think we always said holding

The metaphorical line is treated throughout as a physical electric wire, thus

crossed your wire
We never used the Active in Britain. A crossed line was a situation when a caller was connected to the wrong recipient — generally, I think, when both were trying to call somebody else.

if your line is grounded
In any case, we say earthed

mend the broken wire
We would say repair the line

Robin said...

I speak Midwestern AmE. There are several words in your BrE list that I would have starred because, although I use the ones in the AmE column more often, those words would not seem out of place for me to speak or hear: mobile phone, telephone directory, service provider, reverse charge call, telesales

lynneguist said...

Wow, people like talking about telephone words!

Mollymooly, thanks for the (AmE) copy-edit/(BrE) sub-editing. Change made & marked.

On all the numbers things--the 'double' thing and the 'xty-x-hundred' things are definitely dialect-linked. Not sure what I've covered and what I haven't, but I do recommend hitting the 'numbers' tag (about to add it to this post, but also available in the left margin) to see past discussions.

lynneguist said...

Richard Gasden made a similar point, but @notfrmroundhere facebooked me to tell me that comments weren't working for her, and here was what she'd wanted to say:

"the biggest US/UK phone difference I struggled with was the UK different "area" codes for mobiles that are not really geographically based and tend to start 07. And the fact that sometimes it costs different to call to or from a mobile."

My response was:
"I didn't think of this one (though it's an important diff) because I lived abroad when mobiles became popular. So it always puzzles me that the US ones do have a geographic area code. And all that stuff about 'roaming charges'..."

vp said...


I don't think Ireland would normally count as part of "continental Europe"!

Gemma said...

@Dianebrewster and others: your bog-standard residential telephone numbers (not in big cities) can also have different numbers of digits in the UK. My Mum's phone number is 01234 12345, and mine is 01432 123456 (which is a much more common length). Within my Mum's area code, some of the numbers are 5 digits long, and others are 6.

You don't have to go back further than the 1970s for her number (at a different house) to have been shorter still, with only 4 digits following the STD code (back when STD codes were all also 4 digits long).

[People who live in an area where everyone's number is 6 digits long will do a double take when you give them a 5 digit number.]

On how to say a number out loud: The call-centre for my bank is 0845 3 000 000, which the staff (at least) say as: oh-eight-four-five three-million.

Gemma said...

With regards to phone books/telephone directories, it may not matter what you call them with the younger generation, since they don't necessarily know what they are.

On two occasions at work I have discovered that a younger colleague (17-20 years old) did not know what they were or how to use them. I felt ancient, and I'm only ten years older! I assume that they've only ever searched for a business phone number on the internet, and got a friend's number directly from them, or from a mutual friend (who naturally retrieves it from the numbers stored in their mobile, so no need to work their way through the most plausible entries under a surname in a physical printed-on-paper phone book).

David Crosbie said...


The generational difference is reflected in these two commercials:

1. British TV viewers of a certain age remember this 1980 ad for Yellow Pages. This was such a popular commercial that somebody actually wrote the fictitious Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. It sold rather well.

2. This ingenious 2011 parody is an ad for the Yell iPhone app.

David Crosbie said...


The generational difference is reflected in these two commercials:

1. British TV viewers of a certain age remember this 1980 ad for Yellow Pages featuring JR Hartley. Itb was so popular that the fictitious Fly Fishing was made as a real book. It was quite successful.

2. This 2011 ad for Yell iPhone app is a clever parody featuring Day V Lately. I look forward to the issue of Pulse and Thunder.

Lanta said...

Brit here. I've never heard of "telephone call-box before". "Telephone box" I have, though. People can also just say "pay phone".

I've used "area code".

Gary Lefman - I'm not sure if "phone box" will fade out of use, not while Doctor Who remains popular! After all most people know "police box" and when's the last time you saw one of those on the street?

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@Lanta Don't people refer to the TARDIS as a "police call box" on the show?

Doug Sundseth said...

AmE, though I worked for a European telecom infrastructure vendor for 8-1/2 years, so that may affect my dialect:

Call box - AmE has this, but I would take it to be a dedicated line, usually used by public safety or security personnel to "phone home". 8-)

telephone directory - Formal register in AmE. Phone book, yellow pages (never registered as a trademark in the US), or white pages informally.

service provider - Formal register in AmE.

unpublished - Related to "unlisted", in that it doesn't show up in directories, but one can be obtained by asking directory assistance for the customer by name and the other can't.

voice spam - Occasional informal register terminology for telephone solicitation.

3G - Partially meaningful marketing buzzword. This is just an abbreviation for "3rd generation", and can be used for either GSM/WCDMA or CDMA. CDMA is the dominant technology in North America and Japan (and other areas). GSM/WCDMA is the dominant technology in Europe (and other areas).

Number length - The current 10-digit scheme has been used for a long distance for a very long time, but within-exchange calls could often be made with fewer than 10 (or 7) digits. In my grandparents' home town, you could call other people in town using 4 digits in the 1970s.

Alec said...

Yes, please, Lynne, a post on saying phone numbers. Over the last few months I have repeatedly had the same experience as catranchknits when trying to give my (Canadian) mobile number to people in the UK.
Me: "My mobile is 001-780-xxx-yyyy"
Them: "So that's 0017-80x-xxy-yyy, is that right?"
Me: "I have no idea".
I think part of the problem is that in North America everyone understands that a number as dialled consists of dialling prefix + area code + local number. In Britain (I think) you can always dial the full number starting with the 0 and it would go through even if you were calling from within the same area code. So people are less aware that the first part of the number is an area code, and put breaks in at random places. It’s common to see phone numbers wrongly split even in writing, such as on vans, business cards, etc.

David Crosbie said...


The current writers of Doctor Who are too young to remember what we called the boxes when they were functioning mini police stations.

I don't think I called them police call boxes when I was a boy, but my memory may be altered by the fact that we still have many examples of the local version here in Edinburgh. They're bigger than the Tardis (only on the outside, of course) and served more functions than just a call box. So we call the police boxes.

There's no rush to demolish them — at least not in the centre of town — since they convert easily into coffee vending places at desirable locations.. There are even imitation police boxes on wheels.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Telephone technology has evolved so much over my lifetime! As a small child, we had a telephone number that consisted of an exchange name followed by 3 digits. My parents' telephone number still contains those same three digits, but is now 6 digits long, with a 5-digit area code instead of the exchange name (which also changed from a local exchange to the nearest large town).

And then over the course of my life, telephones first came without dials at all - you lifted the receiver and waited for someone at the other end to say "Number please?" - then had dials with letters and numbers. Then they had dials with numbers only. And finally push-buttons that have letters again so one can send text messages.

I don't think my grandfather would have believed that you could catch a salmon in Scotland, and immediately, without going back to your hotel, telephone a relation in Australia to tell them about it!

David Crosbie said...

Mrs R

I've experienced an even older technology — not because I'm so old but because I lived for a time in a village in rural South Africa, albeit a posh residential area for Whites. You didn't just lift the receiver, you cranked a handle, like they do in old movies.

I wonder whether the change in technology from dial to buttons hasn't affected the way we vocalise numbers. In the past we didn't keep a number in immediate short storage, because dialling a single digit could take seconds. Rather we did one of three things

• memorise it
• write it down
• dial from dictation, either digit by digit or in groups of two or three digits

Our speaking patters were geared to memorising and/or to breaking the number down into very short units.

Simon said...

The switch from 0171/0181 to 020 as the area code for London caused a lot of problems, but I wonder whether mobile phones are to blame for the fact that most people think of the codes as still being 0207 and 0208? Given that when using a mobile you always need to dial the full number, I suspect many people have just got into the habit. I know that I always dial the 020 for a London number even when in London, just in case the telephone in the office needs it.

Graham said...

Just in case anyone here has not yet read them, you may find interesting the Wikipedia articles Telephone numbers in the United Kingdom and North American Numbering Plan. Both are very long and should easily fill up the rest of your working day!

Marc Leavitt said...

On the use of call and phone. Here in New Jersey we casll more than we phone, but the use of both depend on context:

"Did you call Joe?"

"Yes, but he didn't call back. I'll phone him later."

Becky said...

In South Africa, setting up a "telephonic interview" seems to be common. As a North American, I would say "phone interview" or "phoner" (though the latter may be jargon--it's not something I would say in casual conversation).

Is this a South Africanism or is it common usage in the UK as well?

John Cowan said...

The reason that the North American Numbering Plan has just one pattern of telephone numbers is fundamentally technological. In the beginning, all switches were step-by-step: when you picked up the phone, you were connected to a stepper, which has one input wire and ten output wires. When you dialed a digit, the stepper connected you to the appropriate wire, which led either to another stepper which waited for the next digit or else to the subscriber you were calling. That design allowed numbers to be variable-length, long in cities and short in small towns, and so they were: 0 for Operator, a universal convention in North America even today, dates back to the step-by-step era.

Then much of the telephony infrastructure in North America, but crucially not in the UK/Europe, was replaced by a very different mechanical design: crossbar switches. These could process calls much more quickly, but both the calling number and the called number had to be a fixed length, and the same length at that. 7 digits (externally 2 letters + 5 digits, but internally 7 digits) was chosen because of the famous "seven items plus or minus two" that represents the size of human short-term memory. When area codes were introduced, the called number became 10 digits, but the calling number (used for billing purposes) had to remain 7.

Finally, all systems in the First World were converted to electronic switching, which could easily handle variable-length numbers again. In North America, however, there were no such numbers any more except in extremely rural places that didn't allow direct dialing anyway. So we in North America sing all our numbers to basically the same tune: bah bah bah, bah bah bah, bah bah(,) bah bah, with some deviations like "eight hundred" or "five thousand" as discussed above. And when someone else gives us a phone number using a different tune, we boggle.

vp said...

There is a something of a parallel between telephone number systems and addresses in the US and UK.

In the US, both phone numbers and address formats are very standardized. Phone numbers are always of the form xxx yyy-yyyy, and I've never seen a US street address (whether residential or business) that was not of the two-line form:

1234 Main Street
Anytown, CA 12345

(CA is the two-letter state abbreviation and 12345 is the ZIP code. One occasionally sees 9-digit ZIP codes for greater precision).

In the UK, on the other hand, phone numbers can be of various different lengths. And it almost seems to be a status symbol to have as many redundant lines in one's residential address as possible.

I have seen many, especially rural, residential addresses in England look something like:

The Old Rectory
14 Friar's Close
Oak Street
Little Village
Big Town
PO14 5CD

(Here PO14 5CD is the postcode, which in the UK narrows down to a maximum of 100 houses in the same street, so the vast majority of this information is redundant).

I'm tempted to draw some conclusion about the modernist streamlined efficiency of the US versus the aspirational quaintness that seems widespread in the UK, but it probably wouldn't be a good idea :)

PI said...

Lynne, I first ran into the term "ansaphone" and got its spelling courtesy of Neil Gaiman's novel "Good Omens". I don't actually know how prevalent it is, but that's my citation for the spelling, at least.

Dru said...

I (UK) still sometimes refer to a 'telephone kiosk'. Does that make me hopelessly old fashioned?

Alan said...

By a strange coincidence, I just read this, in a translated novel: "Louise had been given a new appointment after a canmobileation..."

This was in Henning Mankell's latest, The Troubled Man. Evidently a translation aimed at American readers was converted for the British edition, in part by a global replacement of "cell" with "mobile". Presumably there was a subsequent proof-reading, since I haven't spotted any other oddities, but this one must have slipped through.

Alison Geldart said...

Interesting post, Lynne!

I'm wondering if you include Mexico in the term North America? "Which is all to say that if you live in North America, you have a lot to learn about how telephones work when you go abroad."

On a visit to Mexico when I was a BrE student studying in the US, I tried to phone home and got most confused with international dialling. I'd got used to the US 011 system, but Mexico uses the international standard 00 – like the UK, but I'd been in the US for a few months and forgot how everyone else does it!

So by North America, I'm guessing you mean the US and Canada.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in a city (in the US) with the area code 508, pronounced five oh eight. However, if there was a 0 in your number later, as in 508-xxx-2305, the later 0 was pronounced zero. five oh eight - xxx - two three zero five. It's something that had bothered me for a while, until the area code was changed.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

When did we stop leaving a message on people's machines and start leaving them voicemail? I suppose when machines became redundant, with the introduction in (the UK) of the free 1571 answering service, which I always forget to check! Is there an equivalent service in the USA?

Brian said...

@Alison Geldart

"North America" is mostly being used (as seen in a few posts above) for the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), which covers the US, Canada, Bermuda, parts of the Caribbean, and the Northern Mariana Islands. It included parts of Mexico until 1991. The NANP regions share the +1 country code, the 011 code for external access, and a common numbering system.

@Mrs Redboots

I think of voicemail as a built-in service rather than a peripheral answering machine. I don't believe that such services are common with most US landline providers, but I'm also cheap and only pay for the bare minimum service.

vp said...

@Mrs Redboots

Thanks for directing me to the 1571 feature. When I call my dear old granny in England, she can't always pick up the phone in time and I often get redirected to that voicemail service. Now I understand what is happening ;)

In the USA, voicemail is (almost?) always provided free with a cellphone/mobile-phone service. I don't know whether such a service isavailable for landlines. Like Brian, I have the cheapest possible landline service. In fact I hardly ever use my landline and only keep the service because it's

* bundled with my internet access, and

* out of a vague sense that it may be useful in an emergency or natural disaster.

Boris Zakharin said...

Re: pronouncing 0 in area codes, it may have something to do with the fact that the middle digit in an area code was always a 1 or a 0, so the rhythm was the same when saying "one" or "oh". Zero would have broken the rhythm. I suspect that area codes with 0 somewhere other than in the middle would get to be pronounced "zero".

This is just a conjecture and one that I know a counter-example to. When the the 215 area code in Philadelphia's suburbs was replaced by 610, it was instantly pronounced as "six-ten" completely breaking the rhythm.

Also, US numbers are again variable in a sense. Some areas have instituted mandatory 10-digit calling, while others allow (or even still require) a 7-digit number for local calls. Further, you always dial the 1 before the 10-digit number if it is long distance, whereas it is not necessary (or sometimes not allowed) for local numbers. That said, with mobile phones and most cable-provided phone services, you can dial a 10-digit number omitting the one regardless of whom you are calling.

Robbie said...

The BT (British Telecom as was) telephone directory is officially titled "The Phone Book", and has been for the past few years. Just to make things more complicated.

David Evans said...

I bought my first mobile phone when they were still quite a novelty in the UK and at that time it was common to call them cellular phones, after the transmitter technology they use.

I'd say that bleep was more usual in Britain than bleeper, certainly for the pagers used within hospitals.

I've never heard "collect call" in Britain, though I wouldn't be surprised if it caught on, as you hear the phrase so often in Hollywood movies.

David Crosbie said...

Dipping into David Crystal's txtng the gr8 db8 I came across something that reminded me that not only is phone a verb here but phone up is a phrasal verb. It's in this oddly pleasing little parody composed on a mobile phone/cell phone:

They phone you up, your mum and dad.

For those unfamiliar with the works of the British poet Philip Larkin, the infamous original is here.

It's a transitive phrasal verb, of course, with a human as direct object. This thought set me revisiting the syntax of phone, which for me is very flexible

They phoned
They phoned me
They phoned the results
They phoned me the results

I can just about do the same with ring

They rang
They rang me
They rang the results
They rang me the results

but call is more restricted:

They called
They called me

but not
*They called the results
*They called me the results

I can happily use the phrasal verb ring up, as could at least one American speaker: the blues singer Kokomo Arnold:

Now, I’m gonna ring up China, yeah man,
— see can I find my good gal over there …… x 2
Says the Good Book tells me,
— that I got a good gal in the world somewhere

(This verse of Sissy Man Blues and its tune are the among the sources of Robert Johnson's Dust My Broom.)

But I'm less happy with call up, which was reserved for what the Army did to young men in the days of national service or conscription or call-up — we didn't use draft in this sense.

Peter Rozovsky said...

It was interested to learn that "hash key" is British for "pound key" because the term "hash tag" has acquired currency in social media that crosses national boundaries. (It means designation of a group of posts under the rubric of the subject name preceded by the # symbol.)
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

For what it's worth, Canada's telephone system seems to have developed its named exchanges on British lines, unless it was the other way round -- Alexander Graham Bell, and all. (No surprise there. I always relaxed on the chesterfield rather than the couch when I was a boy.)

People would give their seven-digit phone numbers as, for example, Hunter1-2345.

Now: How did those exchanges get thier names?

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

@David I think "call up" is just fine in AmE. And mentioning that same Beatles line again, they didn't seem to have a problem with it: "When I call you up, your line's engaged." (This time with the proper "your".)

David Crosbie said...


You can still get a # symbol on a UK keyboard. In the one I'm using right now, I hold the alt key on my Mac and press the same 3 key — which is also my £ (pound) key.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...

I find that you can listen for free to Sissy Man Blues.

Ring up China is in the second verse. And, yes, the first verse does contain the unlikely word acknowledge — an echo of the Prodigal Son narrative.

Peter Rozovsky said...

David, I had no doubt one could get a # on a UK keyboard (I admit having given the matter no thought.) I was just surprised to learn that "hash key" was a British term. The Brits have apparently exported their hash to America, where some of us use it eagerly.

My further questions are:

1) Does "hash" for the # symbol have any currency in America other than on Twitter?

2) Does the usage exist independently of the Twitter "hash tag"? I have never anyone in North America use "hash key" for what is generally called the "pound key" (or "pound sign" one telephone keyboards).

One observation on historical telephony terms: When did the preposition "to" fall into disuse for phone calls? One will often see phrases such as "I will telephone to her" in literature before, I would guess, the 1940s.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

David Crosbie said...


Mobile phones/cell phones have a hash key. Computer keyboards don't.

lynneguist said...

If you-all would like to continue the 'hash key' conversation, perhaps it would be more helpfully placed at that post? (Have you seen it? The link is in this post.)

AndyJ said...

@Peter Rozovsky. Of course the Number Sign could not be called the pound sign in the UK because the pound sign to us is the currency symbol £. But I'm glad to see that at least the internet is following the UK convention in the naming of the symbol #.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"Mobile phones/cell phones have a hash key. Computer keyboards don't."

Aha. I know I'm always flummoxed at first when I try to use a computer in the UK. A supreme test of memory will be whether I can remember what UK keyboards have at shift/3. Pound sterling sign?

Ha! You have hash on your keyboards and pounds in your wallets. We have pound on our keyboards and, er ... well, not since I was a kid, anyhow.

John Cowan said...

vp: There are exceptions to the address rules in rural places. For example:

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield
Postal Drawer C
Republic MO 65738

There are several different dialing patterns as well, depending on the locality. All telephone lines have 10-digit numbers consisting of 3-digit area codes and 7-digit local numbers, but there are three basic patterns of dialing:

A. Calls to local numbers must use 7 digits, calls to non-local numbers (in the same or different area codes) must use 1 + 10 digits.

B. Calls to numbers in the same area code must use 7 digits, calls to numbers in different area codes must use 1 + 10 digits.

C. All calls must use 1 + 10 digits.

It used to be that if you dialed a number the wrong way, it wouldn't work, but in most places it's now safe to use 1 + 10 digit dialing for all calls.

Julie said...

For most of my life the rule has been to dial the 7-digit number for local calls, but non-local calls in the same area code required a 1. (No area code unless dialing outside one's area.) All else would fail.

In the small California town where I grew up, we had only one exchange, so phone numbers were only given as four digits, although we still had to dial all seven. My mom had an old phone book cover, with ads for local businesses on the outside, all listed as YO4-XXXX

This page shows the approved exchange names.

I do generally pronounce the 0 in my business number as "zero", but not always. And when someone gives me a number over the phone, I recite it back to them with zeros (they usually give it to me with ohs) to be sure I heard them right.

I try not to draw attention to the triple six in my home number, so I usually just say it 'six-six-six.' If asked to repeat it, I say 'triple-six' or 'sixteen sixty-six.' Same goes for the double A in my last name. Most people need to hear it two or three times anyway.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...


Sorry I didn't pick up the link formatting of hash key and pound key — of which only the latter is working at present. I've nothing to add to the other thread, but I'm gobsmacked by the existence of American pound sign. Surely a candidate for the most bizarre difference of all your threads.

biochemist said...

In about 1960, my parents had the phone number (Town) 1066. Since this is one of only Two Memorable Dates that made Britain Top Nation (as Sellars and Yeatman tell us in '1066 and all that')it seemed reasonable to say ten-sixty-six when placing a call - however the operator resolutely replied one-zero-six-six. Spoilsport!

Richard Gadsden said...

On mobiles and cellphones.

Britain's original two mobile phone networks were Vodafone and Cellnet. They were both national systems.

America originally had lots of local cellular systems, and it took time for them to combine into networks, and for those networks.

These facts have shaped the way mobile phones/cellphones work in the two countries.

American cell phones have "normal" numbers that you can't distinguish from landlines. They were originally in the area code where the (local) company was based; these days they depend on either the address you sign the contract from, or sometimes the address of the shop you bought the phone in. This means that the caller can't tell from looking at the number whether they are calling a landline or a cellphone. It's never been possible, as a result, for the caller to pay extra for calling to a cellphone. Originally, the cellphone owner paid extra for receiving a call; these days, they use up the minutes on their calling plan, which are probably so many that they never come close to their limit.

In Britain, Cellnet and Vodafone were each allocated their own STD codes (for instance 0378 was a Vodafone code) and these numbers were *much* more expensive to call than a normal number, so you had to keep track of what was a very expensive mobile STD code and what was a still pretty expensive long-distance landline call. Calls from mobiles were also really expensive, and calls from one mobile to another were horrific - and calling from one mobile to one on the other network could run to several pounds a minute.

In 1995, there was a great reorganisation, and all the mobiles were brought together as 07 numbers, while the landlines were all switched to 01 numbers (by making them all one digit longer), so 0378 became 07778 and 0744 became 01744.

It's still true that calls to a mobile from a landline cost more - mobile-to-mobile calls are generally discounted these days and included in your bundled minutes [and that's another one: callplan AmE, bundle BrE].

I like the UK system; if you call an 020 number, you know you're talking to someone in London. If you call 1-212 you might get Manhattan, but you might get a mobile in Los Angeles instead.

I'll come back to STD codes and DIRector codes in a sec.

PS, it's spelt Gadsden, like the purchase. Don't worry, everyone gets it wrong.

Richard Gadsden said...

On STD and DIRector codes.

Once upon a time, we used to have two different types of telephone exchange in the UK, "normal" exchanges and DIRector exchanges.

The DIRector areas were London (01), Birmingham (021), Edinburgh (031), Glasgow (041), Liverpool (051), Manchester (061) and Newcastle (091).

In a DIRector area, you had a local code (three digits, originally three letters) and then a four digit local number. For a long time, you could make a (very) local call by dialling the four digit local number within your exchange, as well as being able to dial the 7-digit number for anywhere in your DIRector area.

Outside DIRector areas, local numbers were usually three or four digits on a single exchange. Long distance (trunk) calls always went through the operator, and that usually meant two operators, the local one who would connect you to the trunk, and the one at the remote exchange who would connect you to the final number. In the very earliest days, you had to book the trunk line in advance - you'd call the operator to do so - as there was a limited number of trunk lines into a given exchange.

Subscriber trunk dialling (STD) came in in 1958, though some rural exchanges weren't connected until the seventies. Originally, the STD code was the first two letters of the name of the STD area plus a digit - my grandparent's number was 0BA6-4548 (Barnsley) when we first called it. STD areas covered more than one exchange, and you had local codes (which were two digit codes that started with an 8) to call any of the secondary exchanges. You could make a local call with just four digits, call another local exchange with the local code plus the number (ie six digits) or use an STD code.

You could tell STD codes from DIRector codes (which would otherwise look similar) because the STD code always had the 0 at the front; I think this is where the tradition for including the 0 in British codes comes from.

Richard Gadsden said...

If you knew the local codes to bounce from exchange to exchange you could chain them together to make a local-rate call across several exchanges; you just dialled a load of two-digit codes on the front. The line was always terrible because you were routing it through many exchanges, but the GPO generally didn't mind you making a long-distance call at local-call rates, because you were using the (cheap, underused) local exchange interconnects rather than the (expensive, always close to capacity) trunk lines.

Over time, the local exchange codes got attached to the number, while a digit or two would get slapped on the front of the main exchange numbers. Even now, any (non-DIRector) number that starts 89 is probably from a small town/large village in the outskirts of the STD area its in. This is where the comment about 89xxxx numbers being Seaford is - Eastbourne was selected for the STD trunks to come into, and you had to call the local code 89 to get from Eastbourne to Seaford; if you were calling within Seaford, you could call the four-digit number, if you were in Eastbourne you probably had a local five-digit number, but you could call 89-xxxx from Eastbourne to Seaford, or you could call 0323 (originally 0EA3) from anywhere to STD to the Eastbourne exchange, then 89 to the Seaford exchange, and then the four-digit local number.

London outgrew the DIRector system, and new numbers are allocated haphazardly there now, so the first four digits no longer have any significance in terms of which local exchange the call goes through.

The other DIRector systems still kind-of work, in most cases the local exchange is allocated a block of DIRector codes and the first-three does tell you whereabouts you're calling, thought the city centres have so many lines now that their exchanges have masses of codes.

The traditional exchanges that still have six-digit calling (or the handful with five or four digit local numbers) also retain their historical number patterns; provided they still have room, numbers are issued as if the old local exchanges still existed.

Some traditional exchanges got moved to the 011 numbers (0113 for Leeds, for instance) or the new 02x numbers (024 for Coventry) and the historical number patterns with local exchange codes have been wiped out by the pattern; new numbers are issued without regard for where they are.

Ø said...

Call Him up and tell Him what you want.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

One of the oddest consequences of STD taking so long to be rolled out across the UK was that, in the early 1970s, I, living in Paris, could dial my grandmother's number directly; my parents, in the UK, could not!

In those days, making an international call from Paris was weird - you dialled 19, then waited for a second dial tone before dialling your country code and so on. I don't know when it changed to what is now the European standard.

David Crosbie said...


Many thanks! For over thirty years I've listened to a church congregation recording led by two of Fred's friends and neighbours — without making out most of the words.

For the final Call him up and tell him what you want, my best guess was Bound to end up in here, want you to know. And, being British, I would never have guessed line ain't never busy.

My guesses were shaped by the fact that here a main line is (apart from drug expressions) exclusively associated with railways — what you now call railroads (but some early American constructions were called railways). For the telephone system we used to say trunk line.

David Crosbie said...


Sorry! I thought your name was Said preceded by a symbol!

Alexis said...

I think "service provider" is coming into ordinary AmE usage, maybe through the more generic "provider". I know I rarely ask friends who their carrier is, and service provider sounds normal.

I'm pretty sure "ET phone home" is idiosyncratic and not a reflection of using "phone" as a verb in AmE.

Robbie said...

Just to muddy the waters of terminology even more, the telephone directory issued by BT (British Telecom as was) is officially titled "The Phone Book", and has been for the past few years.

I see that's what they're calling their web-based directory as well.

I'm just old enough (50 soon!) to remember the last years of named exchanges in the US. Growing up in St Louis, I learned to recite my home number as Melrose-etc. It was slightly confusing because there was a ubiquitous TV commercial at the time for Mayrose bacon, and I always have to think to be sure which was Melrose and which was Mayrose.

Ken Brown said...

David Crosbie said: "Mobile phones/cell phones have a hash key. Computer keyboards don't."

UK computer keyboards most certainly do have a hash key! Though it moves around. On the one I am typing this on right now it is the rightmost key on the asdf row.

AFAIR every UK computer keyboard I have used - and that is hundreds, not just PCs but Sun servers, IBM mainframes, ICL kit, even once upon a time a real teletype - has had a hash key *except* my otherwise wonderful Apple Macbook where you have to use a three-fingered circumlocution to get it.

Which is irritating because the hash sign is very often used in Unix shellscripts and the Perl programing language to mark a comment line. So I wish the Mac had a 1-finger key for it.

As far as I know this is because UK Macs put the pound (sterling) sign where US Macs have the hash (which they call a pound and no-one ever really called an octothorpe except as a joke) But I don't have a US Mac keyboard to compare it with...

Linz said...

I agree with 2 of the points made by fellow Brits, firstly that never in my life have I ever heard anyone refer to an "ansaphone", and secondly that I don't believe "telephone call box" to be used widely, or in fact at all. I've certainly never heard anyone use that term.

I think with the answer machine, it depends whether you are calling a landline or a mobile number. If it was a landline and there was no answer, you would be directed to the "answer(ing) machine". If you phoned a mobile and there was no answer, the call would be directed to "voicemail". I would imagine this has something to do with the fact that, post-BT 1571, home phones did actually have a physical, mechanical "answer machine". For mobiles, the term "voicemail" has been picked up from network providers, phone shop employees, intruction booklets etc.

The term "telephone call box" is one which I have never heard of before. I could imagine perhaps an old person saying it, but generally in the UK we would refer to either a "phone box" (in the case of there actually being a little booth, outside in a street) or a "payphone" (in the case of it being inside a supermarket, sports centre or other public building - usually wall-mounted but not contained in a physical walk-in booth)

I would also argue that in Britain, we call it "The Phone Book", as it is officially named by BT. For businesses, we would use the Yellow Pages.

Although both of these terms are less widely used now thanks to the internet and internet-enabled phones...

Terry Collmann said...

Personally, it irritates me intensely when people give out London telephone numbers, as, eg, "0207 - xxx - xxxx". The code for London os 020. That's it.

Spanish translator said...

It is incredible how in the same language there can be so many different ways of saying things! For technical terms there should be a standard but I suppose it is impossible to change how people talk. Maybe you could be a British to American English translator!

Mike said...

For example, the London codes 0207 and 0208 are shorter than my city's code, 01273. And until a few years ago, they were even shorter (020).

The London area code is (020) with eight digit numbers (020) xxxx xxxx. It has never been 0207 or 0208.

It was 0171 and 0181 before 2000, 071 and 081 before 1995, and 01 before 1990.

In Northern England there are still very long codes like 013873, 015242, 015395, 016977, 017684, and 019467 in use. These have five digit numbers.

The 016977 area code still has some four digit numbers!

Phone numbers in the UK are the same length - even the London ones

Not quite. While most area codes now have 10 digit numbers, there are still 52 area codes that have some 9 digit numbers.

These are in 40 of the 01xxx area codes and in 12 of the 01xxxx area codes.

inner London (0207) or outer (0208) and one for the district (eg 226 for around Islington / finsbury Park, 794 for hampstead)

London has a single 020 area code. The district is now the next FOUR digits (e.g. 7226 for around Islington / Finsbury Park; 7794 for Hampstead)

It’s common to see phone numbers wrongly split even in writing, such as on vans, business cards, etc.

It's a mystery why, when the data is available in many places. Perhaps it's because there are quite a few variations.

Mike said...

Not quite. While most area codes now have 10 digit numbers, there are still 52 area codes that have some 9 digit numbers.

These are in 40 of the 01xxx area codes and in 12 of the 01xxxx area codes.

TYPO! This bit should have read...

Not quite. While most area codes now have 10 digit numbers, there are still 41 area codes that have some 9 digit numbers.

These are found in 40 of the 01xxx area codes and in one 01xxxx area code.

Ven said...

All these posts and no one mentioned Button A and Button B!

"The Button A and Button B pay phones, first introduced in 1925, connected callers via an operator on insertion of the call fee.

The caller then pushed Button A to deposit the coins and make the connection. If a call could not be connected for some reason, or if there was no reply, Button B was pushed and all the coins were returned."

I'm 55 and I only ever came across one of these phones once, in the middle of nowhere in 1974. It was imperative that I worked out how to use it as I had to ring my folks to get some exam results.

A late comment but I noticed that you said somewhere else that you don't mind these

David Crosbie said...


It was imperative that I worked out how to use it as I had to ring my folks to get some exam results.

And it was disastrous if you lost your money because of a crossed line. Did you have that term in America? It mean your call was connected wrongly. So it was vital that the person answering the phone should announce their name and/or number.

This was dramatised by the late great Sidney Carter. You need to know that London numbers consisted of three letters followed by four numbers. So PRI was what you dialled for the Primrose Hill exchange. PRO wasn't an exchange, but a crossed line to a working girl.


Standing alone in the damp and the dark
Of a filthy old phone box in Finsbury Park
I dialed Fremantle they give me a FRO,
I asked for a Primrose, they give me a PRO.

So, Say who you are, love, and not 'Hello'
Give me your name and give me your number.
Say who you are, love, and not 'Hello'
If I press button 'A' all my pennies will go.

My mother is waiting at Lancaster Gate,
I promised to phone at a quarter to eight.
I've done all the things that they tell me to do
But instead of my mother I keep getting you.

There's many the girl that I've got to know
Through a fault on the line of the GPO,
I'd do it again but it wouldn't be right.
I promised to telephone mother tonight.

Ven said...

Over here a crossed line also means that you have been accidentally connected to a third party, as well as the one you were trying to ring, or even that two simultaneous conversations are going on on the same line. This could give rise to indignant conversation along the lines of "You get off the line" "No, you get off the line."

No need for my Mum to announce her name when she answered however, as I recognised her slightly wary "Hello?" we'd only had our own phone a short time then.

enitharmon said...

Ooh! Somebody else I know contributing to this site! Hello Diane Brewster!

But Diane, it isn't quite true that all British phone numbers have 11 digits. Some numbers in the Lancaster and Kendal areas have only 10 digits, for reasons I can't fathom. The British system of formatting phone numbers has been, I'm sure, the despair of more than just me when attempting to validate input.

And there are still applications around (bbdb, I'm looking at you) which will reject a phone number if it is not presented in US format!