Posted by: Jack Henry | October 12, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Phoning it in

The other day, as I was passing through the Education department, I became caught up in a conversation about “phoning it in” and someone asked how that came to mean “to work or perform in an unenthusiastic manner.” I promised my colleagues an answer, but I was surprised to learn that this meaning has been used for a lot longer than I expected.

The following excerpts are from an article from the Visual Thesaurus:

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.

The verb phone then underwent a subtle expansion of its meaning, from "calling (someone) by telephone" to "announcing or relaying (something) by telephone."

…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."

…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." 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.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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