Q: When I call a doctor’s office, I always hear this message: “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” The terms “hang up” and “dial” were meaningful in the days of rotary phones. But I imagine that millennials must find them quaint or silly. How long will it be before they’re replaced?
A: Many old words die out, while others live on with new meanings. In horse-and-buggy days, for example, a “dashboard,” was a board or apron that prevented horses’ hooves from throwing mud onto passengers. But the word survived into the automobile era as the instrument panel on a car.
Will the old telephone terms “hang up” and “dial” survive in the age of smartphones? Perhaps.
The paper-editing terms “copy,” “paste,” and “carbon copy” (or “CC”) have lived on in the digital age, as has the analog phone term “ringtone” (originally, “ringing tone”). And if you work in an office with a telephone exchange, you’re familiar with the sound of a “dial tone.”
Most standard dictionaries now define the verb “dial” simply as to make a phone call, and “hang up” as to end a call.
However, it wouldn’t be hard to rewrite that doctor’s message (“If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911″) without using the old terms or creating new ones: “If this is an emergency, call 911.”
The Collins English Dictionary reports a drop in the use of “dial” (both noun and verb) since 2002, though our googling indicates that the verb is still quite popular. The sentence “If this is an emergency, dial 911” is apparently more than three times as popular as “If this is an emergency, call 911.”
Even if English speakers eventually abandon the use of “dial” for making phone calls, we wouldn’t be surprised if the phrasal verb “dial down” survives in its figurative sense of to lower the intensity of something, as in “He needs to dial down his rage.”
(“Dial down” showed up in its literal sense in 1935, and figuratively in 1988, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
The word “dial” has evolved since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a noun for an instrument used to measure time—an hourglass, a clock, a watch, and so on. It ultimately comes from diēs, classical Latin for “day” and the source of the English word “diurnal.”
The earliest example in the OED is from a 1410-12 nautical inventory in which the term “dyoll,” according to the dictionary, “is likely to refer to a sandglass.” (The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites a sundial for the earliest usage.)
When the verb showed up in the 17th century, it meant “to survey or lay out (land, a mine) with the aid of a miner’s or surveyor’s compass.”
The first OED citation is from a 1653 chronicle in verse about lead mining in Derbyshire: “To make inquiry, and to view the Rake, / To plum and dyal.” (A “rake” is a vein of ore.)
The use of the noun “dial” in reference to telephones showed up at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest OED citation is from American Telephone Practice (1900), by K. B. Miller:
“The subscriber … places his finger in the slot numbered 6, and turns the dial until his finger strikes the stop on the lower edge of the dial, then he lets go and the dial returns to normal position.”
The dictionary’s first use of the verb “dial” in the telephone sense is from a 1918 congressional report about extending the telephone system in the District of Columbia: “Making it possible to dial from any station connected with the War Board to any other automatic station connected to that board.”
Oxford‘s earliest citation for “hang up” used for a telephone is from Modern American Telephony in All Its Branches (1912), by Arthur Bessey Smith: “When the subscribers are through talking, they hang up their receivers.”
In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the history of “dashboard” and other old terms that are now used for the most part in new ways. Here’s an excerpt:
“Loophole. In the 1300s a ‘loupe,’ later a ‘loop hole,’ was a small vertical slit in a castle wall for spotting enemies and shooting arrows at them. It probably came from a Middle Dutch word, lupen, meaning to lie in wait, watch, or peer. So an archer trapped in a besieged tower would shoot through a loophole at the surrounding forces. Today a loophole is usually an omission or ambiguity that gives you an opening to evade a legal provision.
“Earmark. For centuries, farmers notched the ears of livestock as a means of identifying them, and many ranchers still do. The resulting noun, originally spelled ‘eare-marke,’ dates from 1523 and the verb from 1591, according to the OED. These days to ‘earmark’ usually means to set aside funds for a specific purpose, a metaphorical usage dear to the hearts of politicians since the mid-nineteenth century.
“Transfixed. It once meant pierced or stuck through with an arrow or a spear. The verb ‘transfix,’ according to the OED, first appeared in print in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590), where Semiramis, the queen of Assyria, is ‘transfixt’ by her son’s own sword. Nowadays someone who’s ‘transfixed’ is fascinated or mesmerized, as if stuck to the spot.
“Tenterhooks. In the 1400s, tenterhooks were nails or pointed, L-shaped hooks set along the edges of a wooden frame (called a ‘tenter’) for stretching and drying newly woven woolen cloth. In the eighteenth century, people began using the word figuratively, and ‘to be on tenterhooks’ (no, not ‘tenderhooks’!) was to be tense or held in suspense. In today’s far from relaxing times, that’s the principal meaning.
“Bellwether. Once upon a time, everybody knew that a wether was a castrated ram, and a bellwether the sheep that wore a bell to lead the flock. The word today has a literal meaning only in sheep-raising circles. Most of us now regard a bellwether as something that signals future trends.
“Distaff. In the eleventh century a distaff (then spelled ‘distaef’) was a staff wound with unspun flax or wool. The ‘dis’ in ‘distaff’ was probably from a Low German word diesse, meaning a bunch of unspun flax. The staff, about a yard long, was held under the left arm, and wisps of material were pulled through the fingers of the left hand, then twisted with the fingers of the right and wound onto a spindle. The word ‘distaff’ came to be associated with women’s work, and it’s now a noun or adjective referring to the feminine side of things.
“Dashboard. Believe it or not, we had dashboards before we had cars. In the early nineteenth century, a dashboard was a barrier of wood or leather used as a mud guard at the front, and sometimes the sides, of a horse-drawn carriage. The dashboard kept mud from being ‘dashed’ into the interior by the horses’ hooves. When you go for a spin today, the horses under your hood don’t splatter mud on the passengers, but a dashboard is standard equipment.
“Deadline. The original deadline was a four-foot-high fence that defined the no-man’s-land inside the walls around the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War. Any captive Union soldiers who crossed the deadline were shot. The word first appeared in an inspection report written in August 1864 by a Confederate officer, Lieut. Col. D. T. Chandler: ‘A railing around the inside of the stockade and about 20 feet from it constitutes the “dead-line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.’ After the war ended in 1865, Capt. Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the infamous camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes. Not until the early twentieth century did ‘deadline’ come to mean a time limit. The OED’s first mention is in the title of a play about the newspaper business, Deadline at Eleven (1920). This usage may have been influenced by a somewhat earlier sense of the word: a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press. These days, as we all know, journalists aren’t the only ones with deadlines to meet.
“Linchpin. The word ‘linchpin,’ which dates back to the 1300s, began life as a pin inserted into an axle or a shaft to keep a wheel from falling off. It was used exclusively in that way from the days of horse-drawn carriages to the T-Birds and Coupe de Villes of the 1950s. The metaphorical use of ‘linchpin’ (as a vital person or thing) is relatively new—the OED’s first citation is a 1954 diary entry by the author Malcolm Muggeridge. But today only mechanics and hobbyists still use the word in its original sense.”
Some old words have needed a little help to survive in a changing world, as we wrote on the blog in 2012. What was once simply a “guitar,” for example, is now referred to as an “acoustic guitar” to distinguish it from the newer “electric guitar.”
The term “retronym,” which arrived on the scene in the 1980s, refers to such a new name coined to differentiate the original form of something from a more recent version. Other retronyms include “analog watch” (as opposed to a digital one), “conventional oven” (versus a microwave), and “skirt suit” (as opposed to a pantsuit).
Getting back to your question, will the verbs “dial” and “hang up” die out? Or will they be repurposed for the age of smartphones? Only time will tell.