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10 Telephone Slang Terms That Kids Don’t Understand

By Thad White|Thursday February 21, 2019

Technology is changing faster than ever. In particular, telephone technology has rapidly evolved in a relatively short period. Whether you’re considering the history of telephone design or the evolution of VoIP, Mental Floss’ Jason English summed it up with this tweet:

“My daughter just asked why we say ‘hang up’ the phone and now I feel 90.”

Even as the technology continues to move forward, let’s consider some telephone terminology that’s lingering. Whether you’re a curmudgeon who’s confused by “kids these days,” or you’re a youngster who wants to learn some telephone history, here’s a roundup of telephone slang terms that kids just don’t understand.

phone slang sayings

RTimages – stock.adobe.com

1. Hang Up the Phone

Tapping the “end call” button on your cell phone is still referred to as hanging up the phone. However, there’s no literal hanging involved.

To explain, hanging up a call used to mean hanging the handheld receiver onto the wall-mounted phone body to disconnect the call. The closest thing that we have to that today is with a DP1 wireless home business desk phone where you can end a call by placing the receiver back in the cradle.

2. Busy Signal

Don’t know what a busy signal is? That’s because we’re living in a time when most telephone providers offer call waiting. Previously, if you were calling someone who was already on another phone call, the call wouldn’t connect, and you’d hear a busy signal instead.

Back in 1991, a Washington Post article noted that 30+ percent of area homes had call waiting, and the people quoted in the article foreshadowed the mixed feelings that are common in today’s always-available culture. “It’s annoying when my conversation is interrupted,” said one mom who used call waiting. “But it’s also annoying when someone doesn’t have it, and I can’t get through to them.”

3. Dial a Number

There’s no actual dial when making a call with today’s numeric keypads. The phrase dates back to the dials that were on rotary phones. To make a call, you’d turn the numbered dial for each digit of the telephone number. This technology predated the touch-tone system, and it functioned because the rotary dial generated electrical pulses that were recognized by the network.

The language of placing a call by “dialing a number” remains. To put it in context, check out how painful it is to watch two teens try to dial a number on a rotary phone.

4. Wait for the Dial Tone

Previously, the first step of making a call was to pick up the receiver and check for a dial tone. This monotone sound was how users knew the phone line was working.

The phrase has been around since the 1940s, following the automation of phone networks to no longer rely upon human telephone operators. The sound of a dial tone is very recognizable pitch, and it’s the first tone of a dial-up modem connecting to the internet.

5. 411

In a time before Google, you needed a phone book to look up a phone number. However, there was a separate phone book for each geographical region. This meant that phone numbers were harder to locate.

Since the 1930s, dialing 411 has been a way to call information and get a phone number or other directory assistance. While dialing 411 still works today, it’s more likely that you’ll hear 411 being used as slang for information, as in finding out the inside scoop on something.

6. I’m in the Book

No, this phrase isn’t a reference to Facebook; it’s about phone books.

In each telephone book, the white pages contained an alphabetical directory of all the households in the city along with their landline phone numbers. Saying “I’m in the book” is a shortened way of saying, “you can find my contact info in the phone book if you want to get in touch.”

7. Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Another reference to the phone book, this slogan was part of the advertising campaign of the Yellow Pages.

The Yellow Pages portion of the phone book was a directory of businesses listed by category, such as plumbers or museums. Even though it’s been used since the sixties, the symbol of “walking fingers” is one of the most famous symbols to never be trademarked. It inspired classic TV commercials such as this one from a classic 1970 jingle.

8. Phone off the Hook

Before phones had do not disturb mode, you’d take the phone receiver off the hook when you didn’t want to be bothered. This would prevent any incoming calls from connecting.

As the Stones explained in their song Off the Hook, taking the phone off the hook is an old-fashioned version of ghosting.

9. Drop a Dime

Dropping a dime is a slang way to say that someone snitched or betrayed someone. The term dates back to the 1960s, when it cost 10 cents to make a payphone call, which was how you could report something anonymously.

The late William Safire pondered on this phrase in 1998 noting that even though payphone calls cost more than 10-cents, “metaphors do not take seasonal or even generational adjustment.”

10. Telephone Is Ringing

While custom ringtones are a common feature of incoming calls, why do we say that a phone is ringing and not beeping?

This terminology dates back to when phones had actual bells that would ring to indicate an incoming call. It worked via an electrically controlled magnet switch that would vibrate a mechanical clapper against the bell. Even in the 1800s, early telephones such as Thomas Edison’s wall phones would ring because of the bell mounted on the top.

Are These Telephone Slang Terms Ancient History?

To understand the popularity of these phrases over time, we ran them through Google Ngram to see their usage in books over time.

phone slang usage over time

Google – Google

The phrase “dial tone” is still the most popular; however, it’s quickly declining.

Google’s graph for the term “411” was skewed because it’s a number and was shown as being used far before phones were invented. Therefore, we turned to FiveThirtyEight’s tool that analyzes the language used on Reddit, and we see that its use is increasing.

popularity of phone saying 411

FiveThirtyEight – FiveThirtyEight

Further still, some of these telephone slang words have been popularized with reinterpreted meanings that go beyond phones. In particular, the phrases “drop a dime,” “411,” and “off the hook” are used in popular culture and music lyrics.

Using Rap Genius, we analyzed how the terms have been used in rap lyrics, and there’s a clear timeline of popularity. Usage of “411” peaked in the early ‘90s; “off the hook” peaked in the late ‘90s; and “drop a dime” hasn’t peaked.

telephone sayings in music lyrics

Genius – Genius

The language of telephone slang may be ever changing, but high-quality telephone service is better than ever. Learn how you can use Ooma residential and VoIP service to make unlimited U.S. calls for a few dollars per month. Use Ooma with your home phone and on your mobile device with Ooma’s free calling app.

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Loyal customers are critical to business success because they tend to be a source of repeat business. According to The Loyalty Report 2018, “Loyalty programs that establish positive emotional connections with Members see 27% more of their Membership increasing their spend with the Brand.” This research tells us that building customer loyalty can lead to more spending.

Loyalty programs vs. improving customer experience: Designing your approach

There are different approaches to building customer loyalty. Some companies use loyalty program cards, bonus offers and other incentives. You might offer access to special deals like CVS or take 5% off the purchase price like Target. You might even give some or part of your product away for free, like airlines that provide free flights through their loyalty programs. What if your small business isn’t interested or able to offer these kinds of loyalty programs?

There is another way to encourage loyal customers to keep giving you repeat business. Gather customer feedback through a phone survey and then use that data to improve the customer experience. When customers see that the business owner has acted on their feedback, they may feel inspired to return to that business. That means more revenue for the bottom line. You just need a fast and straightforward way to conduct a customer satisfaction survey. That’s where a focused business phone survey comes in.

Why increasing customer loyalty with a phone survey is a good choice.

Organizing a customer satisfaction survey by phone offers notable advantages compared to other methods. While a net promoter survey can give you interesting data, there is no conversational element involved. Further, using the net promoter survey approach effectively requires a certain degree of specialized training in the net promoter methodology.

You might also consider online customer surveys. Surveying your email list or website is worth attempting. Depending on the size of your email list or website traffic, you might be able to get a large number of survey responses. The challenge with online customer surveys is that you will have to spend a lot of time reviewing the data to find insights. There is no way to ask a customer to clarify their survey responses or provide an example.

Conducting a customer satisfaction survey by phone gives you the best of both worlds. You can ask questions and get survey responses. However, you also have the opportunity to provide the human touch. For instance, you may hear a customer complain about a lost or delayed order. When you hear about a problem during a phone survey, you can gather all the necessary details to make the situation right with the customer.

How to increase customer loyalty with a phone survey step by step.

The following steps give you a starting point to create a simple customer satisfaction survey. Over the course of a month, you could gather a significant amount of insights to improve your customer service by calling five to 10 customers per day.

  1. Define your customer satisfaction survey goals.

Before calling a single customer, reflect on your business goals. Are you seeking to improve your profit margins? In that case, you may want to focus your survey on the customers that spend the most on your business. Finding ways to make high-spending customers content may give you an excellent return. Alternatively, you may decide to focus your survey project on whether your local SEO has attracted customers. 

  1. Write your customer satisfaction survey questions.

Now that you have clarity on your goals, it is time to write your questions. According to Survey Monkey, a survey software company, it is best to focus your survey on closed-ended questions. An example of a closed-ended question would be: “How many times have you bought from our business in the past 12 months?” However, this kind of question may not give you the ideas you need to improve the customer experience.

At the end of the survey, consider asking one or two open-ended questions to understand better what your customers like. Encourage customers to think creatively with a question like this: “If you could change anything in our business, what would you improve?”

Tip: Reduce your need for note-taking by using call recording, but make sure that you ask for permission first.

  1. Test the survey with a small group of customers.

With your list of customer satisfaction questions, make a few test phone calls to customers. The purpose of the test is to discover if any of the questions are unclear. If you receive confusing answers, revise the question to make them clearer.

  1. Train employees on how to gather survey responses.

Consider running a few training phone calls for your employees. Ask them to call you or other employees in a role-playing scenario. Making a few practice calls will help your employees become more familiar with the questions. Besides, practice phone surveys will help employees learn how to record survey responses accurately. Once the training is complete, give your staff a list of customers to call and let them get started.

  1. Review the survey responses for insights and follow up with customers.

After all of the survey responses are in, schedule time to review the results. In particular, look for patterns in the results. If a large number of people gave low scores to your website, you may need to make improvements. Also, review the survey responses received in the open-ended questions. You might be pleasantly surprised at what customers tell you.

  1. Follow up with customers after the survey when needed.

A phone survey lets you gather rich insights because you can quickly ask follow-up questions. However, merely gathering survey responses may not impress your customers very much. Instead, offer to refer problems to the business owner for improvement or offer to enter the respondent in a drawing for a gift card. That is a much more compelling improvement! By addressing problems and issues when they arise, you stand a much better chance of winning additional loyal customers.