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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

landline

(1990’s | “home phone”)

An old term in telephony, “landline” achieved its present status in the nineties, during the dawn of the cell phone era. Suddenly we needed a way to distinguish our home phone, which had up to then been known as a “phone,” from our portable phone, which has several different names (cellular, mobile, portable in French, Handy in German). That momentous shift forced this sleepy engineers’ term into prominence. It is used less often because fewer and fewer people have them now, but they haven’t disappeared, and the expression will remain in our vocabulary for another couple of generations, at least.

There is a corresponding shift in denotation, of course. Landline(s) used to refer to cables and wires, not the set connected to them that lives in our houses, or the ten-digit number that goes with it. The evolution is so natural as to seem inevitable, a classic metonymy. “Home phone” was already distinguished from “business (work) phone,” so it wasn’t well-suited to serve as an antonym for “cell phone” — never “cell line,” never “land phone.” The split is strange, but maybe it reflects how quickly and unquestioningly we adopted cell phones and the terminology that came with them. It is almost axiomatic that the change from the telephone as something that sits in one place to something you carry around with you and use whenever you want is fundamental, epoch-making. That’s true especially if you get stuck with a flat tire in a remote place, or break your leg on a wilderness hike, but in more general and comprehensive ways as well. The cell phone revolution, followed immediately by the smartphone revolution, has forced dramatic and relatively sudden changes in how we manage and conduct work, leisure, politics, social life, family relations — everything. Now that we are content to have smartphones run our lives, it’s hard to remember how different it all was.

“Landline” must carry cultural baggage, too, due to an ever-strengthening association with organizations and old people, representing stodginess or its friendlier cousin stability. Those under forty generally don’t have landlines because they are superfluous. I keep mine partly because it transmits sound more accurately than any cell phone I am likely to have, and my hearing isn’t getting any better. Also because I find the stationary telephone comforting, even natural; I still plan my communications sometimes as if landlines are all we have, though I know there are options in these latter days, and I have access to several of them. (When I was a kid, the only way you could carry the phone from one room to the next was if you had a really long cord; now people walk for miles pursuing animated conversations.) But I also know that some day my beloved landlines will disappear, as the fiber-optic cable ages and requires more trouble to maintain, and nevermore will we see the phone plugged into the wall — except when the battery is low.

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