Posted by: bkivey | 2 September 2012

Verbal Anachronisms

Everyday English is filled with verbal anachronisms: words or phrases that have no literal meaning in a modern context, but still have a figurative meaning. I’ve come up with four of these superannuated phrases, three of which come from telephony.

Dial the Phone (Or A Number)

When’s the last time you used a rotary dial phone? People under 30 may never have seen a rotary phone outside of old TV shows or movies. In my childhood home, we had a rotary phone until about 1980. For those who’ve never used one, a rotary dial would seem positively Stone Age. You had put your finger in a hole and spin the dial all the way to the right. For every digit in the phone number. If you messed up, you had to start all over again: pretty frustrating if you screwed up the last number. Oh, and no redial. If you couldn’t get through, you had to dial the whole number again, and every time you wanted to place a call to a particular number.

The last rotary dial phone was made in 2006 by ITT (now Cortelco).

Hang Up

‘Hanging up’ as a literal phrase went the way of the rotary phone. Even cordless phones use a button to end a call, rather than placing the handset in a cradle to break the connection.

Drop A Dime

In truth, this phrase is hardly heard anymore; sort of like ‘Sound as a dollar’. Prior to the breakup of Bell Systems in 1984, payphones charged a dime for a local call, so the literal meaning of the phrase was to make a phone call. The figurative meaning was, and still is, to tattle on someone, or another way of saying ‘make a call’. If you’ve never seen a payphone that charged a dime for a call, the phrase has no relevance, although you may understand the meaning.

Set Sail

The last US Navy ship designed as a pure sailing vessel was USS Constellation in 1854. Windjammers survived in regular trade into the 1950’s. Yet to this day, the process of getting a vessel underway is known as ‘setting sail’, and cruise ship voyages are referred to as ‘sailings’. John F. Kennedy famously extended the metaphor to travel beyond the atmosphere.

This anachronism is likely stay around a while for a couple of reasons. In the first place, sail was the primary method of ship propulsion for thousands of years. That’s a lot of historical inertia. In the second place, there really isn’t another good way to describe a ship in motion. For the century or so steam engines were the prime movers in ships, ‘steaming’ was an accurate description. With the replacement of steam by internal combustion, ‘steaming’ doesn’t really apply, unless the ship is ‘under way on nuclear power‘. So, ‘sailing’ it is.





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