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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

phone it in

(1990’s | journalese (film) | “go through the motions,” “do the bare minimum”)

This delightful idiom is used most often by performers and athletes (another kind of performer), and it seems to have begun to spread in those circles in the eighties. Before that, the phrase was common, but was used on a much more literal way, meaning “convey by telephone,” whether a reporter calling in a story, a doctor sending a prescription direct to the pharmacy, or a citizen reporting a crime to the police. (The first was probably the most common.) The expression as we know it today seems to have been a slight mutation. The earliest, transitional, uses seem to have relied on the idea of a job so easy, so effortless, so impossible to screw up, that it wasn’t necessary to show up at all. A couple of interesting examples, courtesy of Google Books:

  • Robert Mitchum on Deborah Kerr (pronounced “Carr,” I am reliably informed): “I adore her. We have such a rapport professionally we could phone it in. We can anticipate that much.” (“Robert Mitchum on the Screen,” 1978)
  • “I mean, the executives can get a cold and stay home forever and phone it in, but how dare you, the actor, get a cold or virus.” (Ned Hoopes, ed., “Who Am I: Essays on the Alienated,” 1969)

Note the showbiz connection in both instances. Neither quotation quite captures the phrase as we use it today; they lack the derisive, dismissive tone (the second has a tinge of it, but in a different key). More important, originally the phrase meant you’re not physically present; you’re sitting at home. It’s like calling in sick, except you make a show of doing the work.

Today the meaning of the phrase seems to have solidified around the notion of a half-assed job, a half-hearted effort, a mediocre performance. It is still most often used by actors, singers, and athletes, usually preceded by “never” or “not going to.” The semantic progression seems fairly straightforward. If you’re not showing up, you’ll be less engaged with the work and less inclined to maintain high standards. As you lose interest, you won’t try as hard. Imagine an actor delivering lines over the phone — sort of doing the job but not really — and you get the idea. But there was a contradictory current: Some jobs absolutely require that the star be on hand. A singer has to be onstage for the concert; the starlet has to be on the set. If the talent holds out or stays home, then there’s no show at all; “phone it in” could mean “not show up” AND “not do the work.” For some reason, this angle has disappeared. “Phone it in” doesn’t normally mean “fail to appear” any more; in other words, it isn’t used literally now. You show up, but you sleepwalk through the performance. It’s the opposite of “pull out all the stops” or “give your all.”

By the end of the century the phrase was well-established and could be used fancifully, as in this headline from the New York Daily News (August 3, 1998): “POSADA ALWAYS PHONES IT IN.” Not that the Yankees’ young catcher was lying down on the job — this was a human interest story about the phone bills he ran up talking to his family in Puerto Rico. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it does seem to me that the expression is used often as a tag line in that way. Here’s a small but reasonably representative example, from a list of tips to increase sales among young adults:

  • “Phone it in. More than any other group, Gen Y has embraced mobile devices as banking tools. Cell phones help the young people keep finances at a finger’s touch around the clock, says Mark Schwanhausser, a contributor to ‘Gen Buy.’” (Investor’s Business Daily, October 15, 2009)

“Phone it in” here acts as a heading, a quick way of referring to using the phone, without any reference to the metaphorical meaning.

There were lots of phrases in the old days that meant what “phone it in” means now. You could go through the motions or pace yourself or hold back or even do something with the left hand. Ease up, slack off — these were all at least rough equivalents. One of the closest words in spirit was “perfunctory,” an adjective. “Be perfunctory” lacks zip; I can see that, but why did “phone it in” catch on when there were already so many ways to say the same thing? Short, humorous, and glamorous, I guess, propagated by film stars, sports stars, and other megaphones. Is that all there is to it?


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