“Ring”

Coined through onomatopoeic metonymy (approximating the sound telephones used to make), and appeared surprisingly soon after the phone’s invention. First use in the OED is from Punch in 1880: “For you upon them both may frown, And say that you are shocked, or May knock the Secretary down, And then ring up the Doctor.”

That is a verb form, meaning “to place a phone call to”; American equivalents are call, call up, or phone. The noun form give (someone) a ring appears roughly the same time.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

Google Ngram shows interesting patterns in the various forms in British and American English. For one thing, the phrase give me a ring has historically been about equally popular in Britain and the U.S. Currently, following a three-decade upswing, it shows significantly more frequent use here. We also will frequently say something like, “I answered on the fourth ring”–notwithstanding, of course, that telephones don’t make ring-like sounds anymore. And who can forget Ernestine’s “One ringy dingy, two ringy dingies…”?

Verb forms are still more frequent in the U.K. although, typically for a NOOB, U.S. use has spiked since 1990.

The British verb use is more complicated and interesting. The chart below shows British usage of “ring me up” (blue) and “ring me” (red) between 1900 and 2008. Up until about 1940, hardly said merely “ring me”–the phrase had to be “ring me up.” (The OED’s first cite for the up-less ring is 1930) The short form achieved equal popularity around 1980, and currently is used about twice as often. My hypothesis is that ring up sounds to British ears like a stage caricature of the way they talk, so they are in the process of rejecting it–kind of like “telly” or “I say, old boy.”

Another form, still far more popular in U.K. than U.S. is ring off, equivalent to the (anachronistic) American hang up. My Facebook friend Scott Huler mentioned to me coming across this verb phrase in a suspense novel by Lawrence Block. I Googled the author’s name and “rang off” and was presented in at least eight novels in which Block had used the phrase, including this from this year’s “A Drop of the Hard Stuff”: “The phone rang twice, and I rang off before she could answer. I called Greg. The machine picked up, and I rang off.”
A day later, an investor rang him, inquiring about increasing his share of the partnership. (New York Times, November 12, 1989)/I rang him one recent overcast morning to talk about Canta Lechuza, the album of pop songs he’s recorded as Helado Negro (or “Black Ice Cream” in Spanish), which is out today on Asthmatic Kitty.(Village Voice, May 10, 2011)
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8 responses to ““Ring”

  1. My hypothesis is that ring up sounds to British ears like a stage caricature of the way they talk, so they are in the process of rejecting it–kind of like “telly” or “I say, old boy.”

    It doesn’t. And as for telly, I suspect most Brits don’t even realise it’s British.

    I’d say this is just part of the general slow process of naturalisation into British English of many many such formerly American expressions. I think I speak a fairly conservative form of British English but I’ve noticed my own usage has changed in a few such cases: Christian name->first name, in the street->on the street, etc. I still don’t say raised for brought up, though! There’s no rationalising why some of these catch on and others don’t.

    Even call (on the phone) doesn’t sound that foreign any more. I suspect I don’t say either ring or ring up any more; what comes most naturally to mind is to phone, though I don’t perceive that as American, as I would with call.

    As for ring/ring up, that might be seen as part of a general tendency to drop the preposition in such cases. For example, we used to head off, now we just “head”; it’s no longer cool to check something out, it’s cooler to “check it”.

  2. I’d agree with Harry. And while I’d also be more likely to “phone someone” than to “ring someone”, I should say that “telly” is still alive and in very good health!

  3. I notice that in current British TV that the term “ring” instead of “phone” or “call” isn’t used much. Too bad. I do hate to see expressions go by the wayside.

  4. After reading through this blog, I’ve gotten the impression that, witha few exceptions scattered throughout, the primary sources for American adoption of NOOBs are New York publications. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I have to question this. The city’s proximity and its denizens’ ease of travel to and from the UK, combined with a regional history of settlement and culture, as well as whatever strains of linguistic prestige/insecurity that abound in the New York media world could all lead to a greater influence of British English than in the rest of the US. I have nothing against New York–really!–I just wonder about the sampling.

  5. Excellent points all. On the sourcing for the quotations, a big part of it is the limited number of free searchable databases that go back more than a couple of weeks: for older quotations, my go-to sites are Time, Slate, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, all of which are based in New York. (For current quotations, I generally use Google News, which aggregates publications from all over the country.) Beyond that, the blog generally pays more attention to Britishisms in the media than among regular people (no matter where they live). In my view, Britishisms are a media/journalistic/literary phenomenon, an example of writers trying (consciously or not) to be fresh/hip/clever/stylish. Sometimes, these locutions filter down to the public, sometimes not. I am working on a post called “What It All Means” that will get into these issues in more detail.

  6. …writers trying (consciously or not) to be fresh/hip/clever/stylish.” An excellent point; that is evidently the way expressions travel in both directions. People writing for newspapers in England, especially the vacuous “Me Me” columns, are constantly using phrases their readers would not naturally use: “school yard”, “peek”, “ferris wheel”, and probably thousands of others. Perhaps that influences us to use them later. (I asked my daughter (young, living in that city of youth, Manchester) about the expression “Christian name”, and she says it is used all the time.)

  7. It seems to me that ‘call’ is also becoming more popular in the U.K., replacing ‘ring’. The American ‘hang up’ I hear most often in the U.K. as ‘put the phone down’, with an implication of mild violence that is not belied by the words themselves: ‘I called Rupert Murdoch for a comment, and he immediately put the phone down on me.’
    What do Americans say these days for the equivalent ‘hang up’?

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