English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Pay her a call? Or call her up?

Q: How did “call” evolve from a visit in person (“call on her”) to a visit by telephone (“call her up”)?

A: The use of “call” in telephone terminology developed from the age-old sense of a shout or a loud cry, not from the sense of a social visit.

In the 1870s, when first used in reference to telephones, a “call” meant the noise made by a telephone demanding to be answered, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And this sense of “call,” the OED says, was descended from the earliest meaning of the noun back in the 1300s: “a cry, shout, or other sound.”

In the telephone sense of the word, a “call” was originally defined as “an audible signal indicating that a person is trying to contact another by telephone,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1878 issue of the journal Design and Work, describing an apparatus “to enable the sound of the voice while singing to be heard all over a room, and which I use as a ‘call,’ instead of an electric bell.”

And this example is from 1879: “It being necessary to keep the vibratory bells at each station in circuits, in order that the calls may be heard.” (From George B. Prescott’s book The Speaking Telephone, Electric Light, and Other Recent Electrical Inventions.)

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the OED says, the notion that a “call” meant the sound of a ringing phone was “weakened or lost,” and a “call” came to mean a phone conversation or an attempt to reach someone by phone.

The dictionary has this example from the Jan. 11, 1929, issue of the Morning Post in London: “The charge for a three-minute call between London and Warsaw will be 15s. 3d.”

Meanwhile, the verb “call” in its telephone sense has always been used much as we use it today. Oxford’s earliest definition still applies:

“To contact or attempt to contact (a person, organization, building, etc.) by telephone; to connect with (a number) in this way; to phone.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples are from the 1870s. In this one, the verb is used transitively (that is, with a direct object):

“Pressure on the sending push serves to call the corresponding station.” (From an 1879 translation of Théodose Du Moncel’s book The Telephone, the Microphone, and the Phonograph.)

And here it’s used intransitively (without an object): “We run a branch line from the line of the station calling, to a suitable terminal, x.” (From M. Daniel Connolly’s 1879 US Patent #222458, for a telephone exchange system.)

The original verb “call,” from which the noun is derived, dates back to Old English and is probably inherited from Scandinavian languages, the OED says.

The verb first meant to cry out loudly and forcibly. The 19th-century use of the verb in relation to the telephone is derived from “senses in which summoning, invoking, or requesting is the primary meaning,” according to Oxford.

So ultimately, to “call me” by phone is to summon me. It’s notable that “ring me,” a similar use of a noisy word in reference to telephoning, means the same.

Now on to the other use of “call” that you mention—the noun and verb referring to a brief visit. Interestingly, they’re also probably derived from that original sense of a shout or loud cry.

Originally, the use of “call” in the sense of “to make a visit to a house or premises” probably included “the notion of calling aloud at a person’s door to make one’s presence known,” the OED says.

In early use, the dictionary adds, to “call” was sometimes “limited in reference to speaking to a person who answers a call, knock, ring, etc., without entering the premises (the notion of entering being originally encompassed by to call in).”

The earliest written uses of “call” in this sense are from Shakespeare: “To day as I came by I called there” (Richard II, 1597) … “You are to cal at all the alehouses” (Much Ado About Nothing, 1600).

The noun use came later, in the mid-1600s, the OED says, when a “call” came to mean “a short social or formal visit,” and “to pay a call” meant “to make a brief visit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example was published in 1648 in Mercurius Aulicus, a Royalist newspaper published in Oxford: “I’le pay your tooth-less pipkin, you wizzend-chapt a call; and teach your leather eares prick-song.”

This more demure example is from Ann Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey (1847): “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls.”

The characters in old novels always seem to be making, or paying, or receiving “calls.” This use of “call” is still with us, as in the OED’s more modern examples. Here’s a selection:

“When a major underworld figure dies, FBI agents pay a call at the national headquarters of the Florists’ Transworld Delivery Association.” (Nation’s Business, March 1974.)

“What is it you want, Fan? I don’t suppose this is a social call.” (From Eileen Dunlop’s novel The Maze Stone, 1982.)

“South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator.” (New York Review of Books, June 2008.)

The verb we use along with the noun “call” makes a big difference. “Give me a call” means a phone call, but “Pay me a call” means an in-person visit.

[Update, Dec. 28, 2016. A reader reminds us of an episode of The Honeymooners in which two meanings of “call” were used to comic effect:

“Alice: I won’t be long, Killer.  I call you ‘Killer’ ’cause you slay me.

“Ralph: And I’m calling Bellevue ’cause you’re nuts!”]

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