Dialing a telephone

Rotary dial phone

An email arrived today from Phil S, who has been wondering about the quirkiness of the phrase “to dial a telephone”, which is ubiquitous and exclusive in its meaning and yet has, of course, become totally divorced from the original physicality of the phrase. He would like to know:

– What idioms do other languages use, and what’s their literal meaning? Do they similarly refer to rotary telephones even though those are no longer in use? French and Italian use words with the root meaning of “compose”, whereas the German word, anwählen, seems like a form of “to choose”.

– In cultures where widespread adoption of the telephone has happened only recently (if at all), and mobile phones are the norm, I’d imagine that some local languages reflect that, i.e. their telephone-related words have no trace of a relationship to rotary dials, land lines, etc.

– Also, per the OED the verb “dial” apparently dates to 1921 in its phone-related usage, but is much older when used as a word for “to survey with the aid of a dial” (1653) or “to measure as with a dial” (1821). Unfortunately the OED doesn’t discuss the expression “dial in” or “dialed in”, which is sometimes used in sports among other places.


I’d be interested to know how many of you have used a rotary dial phone, and do you remember when you last used one?

I remember using such phones in Taiwan in the early 90s, and I think we were still using them in the UK at that time.

This entry was posted in English, French, German, Italian, Language, Words and phrases.

15 Responses to Dialing a telephone

  1. Drabkikker says:

    Dutch uses bellen “to ring”, opbellen “to ring up” and the more formal telefoneren “to telephone”.
    Opbellen strictly refers to the act of ringing someone up, while bellen and telefoneren have the additional use of “having a telephone conversation”, in which case they are either intransitive, or go with a prepositional object using met “with”.

    Related terminology includes: een nummer draaien “to dial (lit. to turn) a number”; een nummer kiezen “to choose a number”, opnemen “to pick up”; ophangen “to hang up”. All of these verbs are perfectly acceptable for analog as well as digital use.

  2. Rob says:

    I have used rotary dial but it has to be at least 20 years ago.

  3. P. says:

    Drabkikker, are there any synonyms used for draaien, or is that the only verb used to describe the act of inputting a telephone number? That’s what I find so interesting — in English there are many words and phrases that can mean “to telephone someone”, but I can’t think of any other commonly used way to describe inputting a telephone number except “to dial a number”. And in both English and (apparently) Dutch, the verb describes a rotary motion we no longer use!

  4. Peter says:

    I used a rotary phone a lot in the early days and was very glad to switch to push-button as the rotary action was so tricky that I preferred to put a pencil into the rings and turn the dial using that. If I used my finger it would often slip out and the digit would not be properly composed so I’d have to start again. Certainly up to 1976 in South Africa, and later at my father’s place in Surrey as he was old-fashioned.

  5. Petréa Mitchell says:

    My grandmother had one well into the 1990s. It was specially modified with an extra-loud receiver and a large light that blinked when it rang, because she was nearly deaf.

  6. Drabkikker says:

    P: Yup, fascinating, isn’t it? Although I have to add, draaien in reference to a digital phone is definitely in decline, and used mainly by people who still remember the rotary dial.

    The alternative for dialing a number on a modern telephone would be (een nummer) intoetsen “to type in (a number)”, but this is not very common either, since it is rarely necessary anymore to enter a number key-by-key. Instead, the verb bellen is again applied: een nummer bellen “to dial (lit. to ring) a number”. Which, of course, in itself is an anachronism as well.

  7. Roger Bowden says:

    I have spent most of my life “dialing” numbers (now 73 years) but never thought in terms of it being an exclusively rotary function, nowadays I just phone someone, or call them, or call them up.

  8. David Eger says:

    A mildly amusing anecdote: In the music shop in which I worked a few years ago, we had a teenager who came in for an hour a week, to tune the instruments. On one occasion, he asked to use the phone to call is mother. The phone in the shop happened to be a reclaimed 1970s rotary dial phone – something he had evidently never encountered before. He was a bright lad (he has since gone on to get a degree in zoology), but he was utterly perplexed by this phone, and could not figure out why nothing happened when he pressed the numbers.

    I grew up with rotary dial phones in the house and remember them being the norm (I thought of push-button phones as being a bit ‘posh’) until I was, perhaps, 10 or 12 (I am now 39).

  9. TJ says:

    I think last time I’ve used was some time in mid 1980s here.. I was like 7-10 years old back then.

    Language-wise, we don’t use something like the verb “to dial” at all. We use a verb (or two) that normally translates as “to ring”.

    Just a note about phones: Here in Kuwait, in old times like in the 1940s-1960s, phones were called Misarrah, derived from the word Surúr [سرور] which means happiness. Mainly, as I heard, people in the old days when not everyone had a phone, the phone was used to give and tell happy news and almost never to tell bad news – because, as it seems from the mentality of people back then, it was impolite to tell bad news through the phone (specially about the death of someone) and they are better be told to the face where better emotions can be expressed and dealt with (anyway this is my own analysis).

    Nowadays, the regular name is simply Mobile or Telephone (but not Phone).

  10. prase says:

    In Czech, the verb was vytočit, a perfective form of točit ‘to turn / rotate’. I am not sure how often it is used now but doesn’t sound overly archaic to me. I had used a rotary dial well into the 90’s. Vytočit is transitive and usually takes číslo ‘number’ as its object.

    Interestingly, the word točit itself originates as a causative of téci ‘to flow’ (still in this meaning today in e.g. natočit kbelík ‘fill the bucket (with a liquid from a tap)’), having evolved the contemporary meaning ‘to turn’ when rotary taps became common. Today, it can also mean ‘to film’ as there were visible rotary parts on old cameras. So there is a verb which originally means ‘to make flow’, which later evolved to a range of different meanings based on once common specifics of machinery that mostly lacks them today. Even the taps are being replaced by lever mixers and photocells these days.

    And perhaps cultural anthropologists may concoct wild hypotheses about different roles of weapons in the U.S. and Czech cultures based upon the fact that in English films are ‘shot’ rather than ‘turned’.

  11. Prussia says:

    I had always wanted an authentic Bakelite 30s telephone and bought a reconditioned one last year. Never use it!
    Occasionally it rings with junk mail callers. It does sound lovely though!
    But dialling it really is an effort! Apparently secretaries using pencils to do it wrecked them. Never do that!
    I think unlike some quaint out of date phrases which we still use, dial really does seem to have vanished. In most languages I know of you simply use ‘call’.
    I am only in my 30s but still remember the hall telephone table with the phone on back in my childhood. I think it was a much quieter time then!

  12. Zeppelin says:

    We had a rotary phone when I was young — probably until the late nineties.

    In German, the verb for “to call [on a phone]” is anrufen, lit. “to call on”. The verb for “to dial [a number]” is wählen, “to choose”.

    Oh, and for shooting a movie the verb is either filmen, drehen (“to turn”) or aufnehmen (“to take up”).

  13. Arakun says:

    The Swedish word for “call [on a phone]” is ringa, which also describes the sound the telephone makes (at least the old ones containing brass bells). “Dial a number” is slå ett nummer. Slå means “strike” or “hit” and works just as well or even better with buttons compared to a rotary dial.

    We actually kept one of our rotary dial phones, a grey Ericsson Dialog, until about five years ago. They were made during the 60s and 70s and still a common sight in Swedish homes throughout the 90s. The dial was quite “loose” and pleasant to use. Other models had much stiffer dials that would quickly wear out your finger if you had to do a lot of calls.

  14. Luke says:

    I’m 32, and my grandparents on both sides of my family had rotary phones. My mother’s parents passed away years ago, but my paternal grandfather still has a rotary phone, and it’s a 1950’s (I think?) model, built into the wall in front of a small desk in their kitchen. If I need to make a phone call while visiting there, I always use the house phone (partly so that whoever I’m calling sees the number on their caller ID and thus knows where I am, but also partly just to use a rotary phone.)
    On another note, the only other term I can think of for “dial” is “call”, as in “call 1-800-…”, but I’d never say “I called the number wrong”, I’d say “I dialed the number wrong.”

  15. renato says:

    fazer uma chamada in Brazilian Portuguese, BTW thanks a lot for the image, It reminded my my grand-mother’s house that had one of this. I hate mobile phone

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