My Birthday Was Off the Hook!

My Birthday Was Off the Hook!

What hook would that be? Well kids, it's THIS one:


What is that shiny metal thing, you ask? Why, it's an old telephone. To make a call, you'd lift the earpiece off the hook. This opened the line and an operator would ask if you'd like to place a call. To receive a call, the earpiece had to be hanging "on the hook." You literally* had to "hang up" the phone. 

If you were particularly popular and receiving a steady stream of calls, you could brag (or complain) that your phone was "ringing off the hook."

I'm not that old. I never had a phone with an actual hook. Nope, back in my youth, we didn't even "hang up," per se. Our phones looked like this:

Still, if you neglected to seat the receiver properly on the cradle, an annoying beeping noise would sound for a few minutes, followed by a recorded operator's voice saying, "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up..." But she didn't really mean it. She meant you should depress the two little pop-up buttons (or replace the receiver) in the cradle to close the line. There was neither hanging nor hook involved.

Those old phones rang like they meant it. Sure, you can program your iPhone to make a similar sound. But you're not fooling anyone over 40. And no phone that slips easily into your back pocket compares with one that can double as a weapon. You could kill an intruder with the telephones of my youth, and not via radiation-induced brain tumor. Just grab it with the two-fingers-behind-the-cradle hold and swing. And don't worry if you drop it. The only thing breaking will be your toe. 

Hey! Know what's totally off the hook? This fabulous, pink, new old stock ITT model 500 phone I got for my birthday last Saturday:


And what fun teaching my three young children (who can mouse and swipe with the best of them), how to "dial" on an actual dial. They were entranced by the quaint and alien technology. 

Call me maybe? I love to hear it ring.

When I'm not seeking, selling, and wearing vintage, I'm an editor. An editor with a love and respect for language, and no small amount of disdain for those who willfully or ignorantly abuse it. 

So listen up, kids. A phone cannot, and never could, be "literally ringing off the hook." Something is literal when it is exactly and precisely as you describe. And as I've explained, when the phone is "off the hook," it cannot ring. Not now. Not ever. It doesn't matter that none of these phones had or have an actual hook:

The fact is, if you don't "hang up" (that is, close the line), the phone can't ring.

Perhaps you didn't get the grammar memo (short for memorandum, a form of written communication used mainly by government and institutions, to create a paper trail)? They are not email. They are printed on paper and look like this:

So, if you didn't, and you find yourself using "literally" incorrectly, and with such frequency that you sound like a broken record (in which case you're more likely scratched than broken, and a penny on the turntable arm, just above the needle, might set things right), please stop and think:


Because if you insist on continuing to misuse the language, I and my Grammar Police squad will be compelled to put you through the wringer (but you'll dry more quickly on the line and be easier to iron, saving us time and effort on wash day!):

If, armed with all you now know, you still choose to say "literally" when you mean "figuratively," I'd bet you don't know sh*t from Shinola. You're probably familiar with the first. Allow me to introduce you to the second:

How about you, readers? Can you think of other expressions that are still in common use, although many people have no memory, or even knowledge, of their source? I'd love to hear your thoughts and recollections. And don't worry, I only carry my Grammar Police badge at my other job.

Literally Poster from Grammatical Art on Etsy(thanks to Natalie at Grammatical Arts)



Liza Dolensky

I LOVE YOU! Literally.

Liza Dolensky

I’m sure I’ll come up with something Liza – meanwhile – Shinola – Holy Smokes – Took me back 50 + years to camp on the Cape. Sundays we had to wear all white and out came the Shinola for our shoes.

Liza Dolensky

He/she sounds like a broken record!

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