Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Phoning It In"

It's time once again for Mailbag Friday! Marc T. of New York, NY writes: "John McCain recently said that he put his campaign on hold to work on the Senate bailout package because 'it's not my style to simply phone it in.' Why do we talk about doing something in a lackluster or perfunctory way as phoning it in? Who originally did the phoning in, anyway?"

The history of American slang is often illuminating, and this is no exception: tracing the origins of this expression tells an intriguing story about the intersection of the technological and the theatrical.

Soon after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, the name for this new form of communication changed from noun to verb, in order to refer to the act of calling someone by telephone. (People often complain about how nouns get "verbed," but telephoning is perhaps too useful a word to elicit any griping.) Bell himself used the verb early on, describing to the Telegraphic Journal in September 1877 a demonstration of his invention where the audience was able to listen to a concert remotely: "I telephoned the leader of the band and requested him to place the higher cornets nearer the instrument." As Bell's gadget caught on, both the noun and the verb were rapidly shortened to phone. In 1889, the journal Telephone explained, "The expression 'I telephoned So-and-So,' is often rendered 'I phoned So-and-So.'"

The verb phone then underwent a subtle expansion of its meaning, from "calling (someone) by telephone" to "announcing or relaying (something) by telephone." The Oxford English Dictionary gives an example from 1910, in the adventure story Boy Aviators on Secret Service: "Wait a minute while I go to 'phone my resignation." (Through the mid-twentieth century, phone was often spelled with a leading apostrophe, a vestige of the clipping from telephone.) The phrasal verb phone in then developed from this sense, on the model of expressions for postal communication like mail in or send in. If you could mail in (or send in) a request to a newspaper, for instance, then it was only fitting that you could phone in (or call in) a request to a radio show. And in the days before emails or faxes, correspondents reporting on breaking news would often phone in stories to their editors.

The luxury afforded by the telephone of transmitting a message from a distance (rather than having to show up in person) led to all manner of jokes. Among stage actors, a "gag" circulated about an actor with a role so small that he could phone it in. A glimmer of this joke can be found in a February 1938 syndicated newspaper column called "Senator Soaper Says." (Senator Soaper was a pseudonym for Harry V. Wade of the Detroit News.) The column includes a sarcastic comment about Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which was then a new and controversial play. As our own Shannon Reed recently explained, Wilder explicitly laid out the stage instructions for the play: "No curtain. No scenery." "Now that a Broadway drama has attained hit proportions with no scenery," wrote Senator Soaper, "the next step is to have the actors phone it in."

The satirical Senator Soaper returned to the humor of phoning it in in a column in January 1945, soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt had been sworn in to an unprecedented fourth term in office. Roosevelt's inaugural ceremonies must have felt like old hat the fourth time around, and Senator Soaper offered this zinger: "As far as we know, there is nothing in any rumor that in case of a fifth inauguration, F.D.R. will phone it in." Roosevelt, of course, passed away the following April, so there would be no fifth inauguration.

By the advent of the television age in the 1950s, phoning it in had drifted away from these jokey images, becoming an established idiom for a rote or uninspired performance. The actress Joan Caulfield used the idiom in an interview with the Washington Post that appeared on Sep. 6, 1953. Caulfield, the article explained, preferred performing on live television rather than on prerecorded broadcasts, because "so many people feel you're doing the show for them — not 'phoning it in." (There's that apostrophe again!) The actor Edmond O'Brien expressed a similar sentiment in the Oct. 2, 1960 Los Angeles Times: "There's a great danger," he said, "of just playing yourself when you've been at this trade a while ... of just phoning it in."

Phoning it in moved beyond the acting profession to become a widely recognized expression appropriate for any type of ho-hum public performance, from athletics to music to politics. Interestingly enough, mailing it in has emerged as another way of describing doing something without enthusiasm, particularly in sports circles. On his Double-Tongued Dictionary site, lexicographer Grant Barrett has collected examples going back to a 1986 quote about the hapless New York Knicks: "Don't think you're going to mail it in and don't come in with your head down. We're going to try to win the game." For some reason, American athletes and coaches seem to prefer talking about mailing it in rather than phoning it in. Either way, it's pretty old-school: in this day and age shouldn't we be talking about emailing it in, texting it in, or IMing it in?

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 17th 2008, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Jordan M. (Newburgh, IN)
I phone it in when I'm sick and don't want to come into work, but I suppose that's a different route altogether.
Friday October 17th 2008, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
We could go with "twitting it in" as the new incarnation -- it's both new-school and funny-sounding. Plus, it can act as a double-entendre for being a twit for phoning it in.

"Twittering it in" might be more accurate, but Twitter is a brand name (whereas phone, email, mail are generic), and the phrase is almost impossible to pronounce.

I, for one, would just like to call on the author of Word Routes to stop "blogging it in" on Fridays.

Sunday December 19th 2010, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Georgia LWL S. (New York, NY)
Here's a question for a future Mailbag Friday:

What's up with the repetition of words for emphasis? Could this mean the death of the adjective?

For instance: "While snacking at a cocktail party, a friend asks, 'Is this it? Or, is there going to be food-food?"

"I have to go into the office, but I don't have work-work today. I just have to write a few emails."

Curious in Brooklyn,
Sunday December 19th 2010, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dear Curious in Brooklyn: Some linguists have called this phenomenon "contrastive focus reduplication." See a paper on the topic here, and a large corpus of examples here.

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