Why do you hang "up" when you put the phone down when you're done talking?

I don't get it and none of my friends do.

  • 3
    If you hanged your phone it would be dead. Also, Kidses these days, like I presume you and your friends to be, have a tendency to drop the preposition in formerly phrasal verbs. E.g. the old way of say it is "I went to hang out with my friends", the new way "I went to hang with my friends". – Mitch Jun 14 '13 at 14:47
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    In the old times, phones used to be hung on walls with wires hooked to them. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 14 '13 at 14:53
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    @user1306322 What do you do with your coat? Hang it down in the closet? or hang it up in the closet? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 14 '13 at 14:53
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    @ Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Depending on the room layout, one could hang his coat up down in the closet. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 14 '13 at 16:05
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    Because I'm as old as dirt, let me add that the wall-hung house phone I grew up with required me to reach my arm up to hang the receiver back on the wall unit. What's up with that? lol! – Kristina Lopez Jun 14 '13 at 17:42

Do a google image search for "old time phone" and I think you will understand a little better. Once upon a time, the phone had little U shaped hook on the side, and the ear piece rested there while not in use. Also, this hook connected to a switch inside the phone, and the weight of the ear piece was needed to close this switch and disconnect the phone. So the expression at that time was almost literal, the user of the phone needed to hang the ear piece up on the hook, lest it dangle like a pendulum from its cord. Today, we keep the expression out of either habit or tradition.

EDIT: Not totally related, but it suddenly occurs to me, that we also still dial our phones, even thought the pulse rotary system was dead by the late 1980s.

  • Most of the old phones I've seen were not public (in house, private property) and you put the ear piece down on it. And the final direction in which the ear piece goes on those wall phones is down, when you release it from your hands, so "up" is a bit weird. I guess it makes sense that you hang "up" clothes, because most of the time the hanger rack is high up, but the phones are usually placed much lower. – user1306322 Jun 14 '13 at 15:00
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    There are plenty of other things that have no such etymological justification. Why do you give up anything? Is there an explanation? Why does it mean different things to say shut down and shut up? What goes up or down in these instances? :) – Kris Jun 14 '13 at 15:15
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    The only thing I'd add is that this was close to the typical mechanic for wall mounted phones in the USA at least until the breakup of "Ma Bell" in the 1980's. (Back in the day, Ma Bell owned all the phones, not the user, so there weren't a ton of styles to choose from) There'd typically be a switch in the part you hung the earpiece on, rather than the hook itself being the switch. But the point is that this was a perfectly descriptive term for the process up until at least 30 years ago. – T.E.D. Jun 14 '13 at 16:04
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    That explains part of it, but it's also partly due to the completive up particle seen in finish up, make up, do up, whip up, start up, and hundreds more phrasal verbs. This up particle (there are others) is responsible for the synonymy of drink up 'drink completely' and drink down 'drink until all is swallowed', as well as burn up 'burn completely' and burn down 'burn to the ground'. – John Lawler Jun 14 '13 at 18:48
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    @user1306322 The phones you describe, on which you set the ear piece down, are the ones I remember, but even longer ago there were desktop models on which you would hang the ear piece, just as on wall-mounted phones. Google "old telephones" to see pictures of some of these models. – Andreas Blass Jun 14 '13 at 19:53

The word up can mean to transition to a state in which something is completed. For example, "your time is up". When you "hang up" the phone, you transition it into a state in which something is completed, just as when you "clean up" your room or "give up" in a contest.


In the US we say "it's UP to you". In Britain "it's DOWN to you". To me they have different meanings - the first means I am able to decide, the second, I am the last person left who can decide. British say "take a decision", US say "make a decision". The first seems like the options are all predefined and you can only select one, the second is more like a creative process. New-speak to the rescue... "Why can't we all just get along?" OR, choose the best phrase for the meaning and use it.

  • while this is undoubtedly interesting, it doesn't really answer the question asked – user1306322 Feb 28 '14 at 18:22
  • @user1306322: My answer is to raise the real question: "Why don't we create new terms for manifestly new things?" Why don't we use words intelligently instead of by rote? – user126158 Feb 28 '14 at 19:28
  • English isn't even my first language, and I was just asking out of curiosity why things are how they are. But personally, I prefer using simpler phrases when talking to someone verbally. – user1306322 Feb 28 '14 at 19:43
  • @user1306322: I can't even guess as to what would be "simpler" in this context. The simplest thing seems to me to define terms precisely and not allow the meaning to be altered. Conversely, not choose terms whose basis is likely to shift. Less arguments = simpler. Hang up is a simple phrase. End call is a simple phrase. One refers to a physical action that is now so obsolete that it causes confusion, the other will always make sense. It would have been simpler to choose the correct phrase 100 years ago. – user126158 Feb 28 '14 at 20:36

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