In older print publications, I have come across telephone shortened to 'phone, with an apostrophe to mark where the beginning of the word had been omitted. Now, however, phone does not need an apostrophe and is viewed as its own word, spawning other compound words like phone call, phone line, and phone book.

When did phone start to replace 'phone?

Is there a term for the phenomenon of an abbreviation becoming a word in its own right? I know something similar happened with facsimile and fax.

  • 6
    According to Etymonline, phone as a shorthand for telephone is attested to from 1884— barely 7 years after the formation of the Bell Telephone Company (a predecessor of AT&T).
    – choster
    Dec 15, 2014 at 19:12
  • 3
    The use of phone originates with E.T., who famously wanted to phone home. -- ET_ymonline. ;-)
    – Drew
    Dec 15, 2014 at 20:27
  • I think I've only seen 'phone in quoted dialog, where the intent of the author was to imply the speaker had audibly truncated "telephone".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 16, 2014 at 3:13
  • Though, actually, 'Phone is just a misreading of iPhone.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 16, 2014 at 15:56
  • 2
    @SvenYargs - Indeed. Consider the fate of taximeter cabriolet.
    – Rob_Ster
    Oct 26, 2016 at 2:44

6 Answers 6


When did phone start to replace 'phone?

Immediately, if not before.

Let's just briefly answer the second question and then come back:

Is there a term for the phenomenon of an abbreviation becoming a word in its own right? I know something similar happened with facsimile and fax.

Clipping. Words get shortened and lose rough edges like pebbles in a stream.

But, let's consider that we're in 1880. While there have been several devices called "telephones" since 1828, it is only 4 years since Alexander Graham Bell's device of that name for transmitting voice communications have become a practical reality. They are a novelty, and their name is long, and these two things encourage shortening.

Now, we hear someone say /fəʊn/ or /foʊn/. Do we consider that a contraction, an abbreviation, slang word, or a combination of two or all of those?

There really isn't a rule we can follow. If we consider it a contraction, then we would write it as 'phone. If we consider it an abbreviation we would write it as phone and if we consider it a slang word we'd likely (this being the late 19th century when people put slang words in quotes) write it as 'phone'.

All three are found:

1880 Decatur (Illinois) Daily Republican (Electronic text) 27 Jan. Haworth & Sons were among the first to subscribe for a phone, but the company was a little tardy in putting in the instrument.

1886 California Maverick (San Francisco) 13 Feb. 1/3 To him I related the famous fiend's new invention—this 'phone that could talk in foreign languages.

1899 Westm. Gaz. 18 Apr. 2/1 The receiver of this ‘phone’ consisted of a horizontal cylinder divided vertically by a diaphragm which projected several inches beyond the front orifice.

Our choices would vary according to how often we heard talk of phones, and our individual attitudes toward contracted speech, slang, and innovations both linguistic and technological. But from the very beginning there were some accepting phone as an independent, if perhaps rather hip word. (A very hip word, since hip wasn't to acquire that sense until the early 20th century).


The particular form of word formation is known as clipping.

The Wikipedia article is informative, but I'd say needs refining. It does contain a good sub-classification and quite a few examples. And also the definition:

In linguistics, clipping is the word formation process which consists in the reduction of a word to one of its parts (Marchand: 1969)

Choster's comment seems the best response to the other question, although it would seem to suggest that 'phone appeared later than phone and then largely disappeared. Like him, I would not post the link to Etymonline in an 'answer' as I wholeheartedly agree with what Martha says on Meta:

‘If we accept the axiom that trivial questions are bad for the site, then the proper response to a general reference question is: 1.Don't answer! 2… [Vote] to close. The point is not to encourage trivial questions. If you post an answer or vote up an existing answer, you're implicitly encouraging more questions like it.’ –Martha

The snag here is that OP's other question is neither general reference nor trivial.

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    To echo medica's question to Icon Daemon: OP's question, "When did phone start to replace 'phone?", is not dealt with directly in your answer
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 15, 2014 at 20:49
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    @Mari-Lou A I've addressed one of the questions posed (naughtily, of course – OP's should restrict themselves to single questions); the other question has been answered adequately in other 'answers'. Are you saying I shouldn't add what I believe (well, know) is a correct answer, or that I should duplicate what I consider other people to have given as useful answers to the other question? Dec 15, 2014 at 20:56
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    The correct course of action would have been to ask OP to submit one question at a time, but nobody else seemed too bothered. And I thought it important to mention the name for this particular way new words are formed, and give a link to a reasonable article on clipping (though I don't think Marchand is altogether correct when he says: 'Clippings are not coined as words belonging to the standard vocabulary of a language. They originate as terms of a special group like schools, army, police etc. [phone?]) // I've directed people to Choster's remarks about the timeline for phone. Dec 15, 2014 at 22:43
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    Perhaps you ought to act on your words, if you really believe them. Perhaps the mistake is yours: To find the etymology of phone, one looks up phone. In say Etymonline. Etymonline is an accepted general reference source here on ELU, that users are supposed to check before posting a question.. To discover the term 'clipping', one looks up ... er ... over to you. Dec 15, 2014 at 23:18
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    There were two questions. I gave a reasonably complete answer to one of them. But I refuse to give a reasonably complete answer to a general reference question. Dec 16, 2014 at 6:34

It happened with omnibus > bus; taximeter cabriolet> taxi; refrigerator > fridge; and other such colloquialisms. The apostrophe was used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters, then eventually dropped when the word came into more colloquial use, probably because it is not verbalized.

According to Google ngrams the use of 'phone' overtook* the use of 'telephone' in early 1990, at least in print.

* thanks to edwin ashworth

  • OP's question, When did phone start to replace 'phone?, is not dealt with directly in your answer. Dec 15, 2014 at 20:07
  • 1
    @medica I guess that would depend on one's definition of 'start to replace'. If your definition is when the very first person did it, then no it doesn't. If your definition is when did it start to become more common than the previous method, then yes, yes it does. Dec 15, 2014 at 20:44
  • 1
  • No. According to Google Ngrams the use of 'phone' overtook the use of 'telephone' in early 1990, at least in print. Dec 16, 2014 at 6:37

The name of the process is lexicalization. From the full OED...

lexicalize - to accept into the lexicon, or vocabulary, of a language.

As to exactly when the transitions telephone -> 'phone -> phone happened, I think that's a rather pointless/unanswerable question. Some people might have started using the shortened form almost immediately (and in speech the presence or absence of an apostrophe is meaningless anyway).

On top of which there's no single authoritative source to say when or if any given word (or form of a word) becomes "accepted", so poring over dictionaries won't provide a definitive answer.

  • But wouldn't there be a point where phone was considered an incorrect abbreviation of telephone, just like isnt is considered an incorrect abbreviation of is not? It seems similar to words like to-day becoming acceptable without hyphens.
    – Nicole
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:47
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    @Nicole: It really depends who's doing the "considering". I used to read a lot of sci-fi way back in the 60s, and in that context 'port wasn't at all uncommon even then (if your story is set in a future where teleportation booths are commnplace, any half-way competent Anglophone would expect that shortening to occur very quickly). And that's despite the fact that my bang-up-to-date Google Chrome spell-checker (spellchecker?) doesn't even accept yet that teleportation is a valid word. Dec 15, 2014 at 18:55
  • 1
    @Nicole Perhaps the best way of deciding that " 'phone (for example) is now considered archaic / obsolete" is when all the dictionaries that once listed it now either don't, or label it as archaic / obsolete. But you're probably not going to get total agreement on this until all the people who had dictionaries licensing the former version die. Dec 15, 2014 at 19:58

As a supplement to Jon Hanna's answer, here are some very early instances of phone that appear in connection with telephone (though not necessarily as an abbreviated form of that word) from newspapers collected in the Library of Congress database. Most of these instances are either jocular or purposely generic in order to cover such recent inventions as megaphones, microphones, aurophones, and phonographs, in addition to telephones. But a couple of the instances seem to be specific to telephones.

Instances of 'phone' as a short form of 'telephone', 1878–1879

I found two serious and specific examples in which phone seems to serve as shortened form of telephone. From "Local Matters," in the [Richmond, Virginia] Daily Dispatch (March 16, 1878):

The telephone can be used with equal convenience at the mouth, as a speaking trumpet to transmit your words to the person with whom you are in conversation, or as a ear trumpet to hear what he says. For one person two of these 'phones are provided. One is usually held at the ear; the other at the mouth. For greater distinctness in hearing on can be applied to each ear.

Messrs. Kates and Paynter conducted the experiment at this end o the line, while Mr. N. C. Pamplin ("old Nick"), the manager of the telegraph office at Norfolk, operated down there. Nearly every word uttered at Norfolk could be heard with a 'phone at your ear.


In the singing it will be understood that each singer put a 'phone to his mouth and each hearer put one or more to his ear. That is the great advantage of this particular telephone—the 'phone can be applied with equal facility to mouth or ear.

And from "Local News," in the [Barton, Vermont] Orleans County Monitor (May 19, 1879):

C. F. Davis has just put up a telephone, which connects his shop with his residence. Conversation is easily carried on between the two places. He runs a small copper wire between the two places. The wire is attached at each end to the vibrating discs of the phone.

Jokey or generic instances of 'phone' in association with 'telephone', 1878–1879

Instances of phone used for humorous purposes or as a generic term for "fancy invention involving sound and wiring" (or both) are more common than straightforward instances of phone as a short form of telephone. My search of the Library Congress's Chronicling America newspaper databases produced six unique matches of this type from the years 1878–1879. From "Rocking the Cradle," in the [Diamond City, Montana] Rocky Mountain Husbandman (June 20, 1878):

A few days since the Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye propounded this conundrum:

"Couldn't Mr. Edison invent some kind of phone or graph that would be acted on by the cry of an infant in the night so it would instantly grasp the cradle and rock like the tossing billows on the ocean's breast. ... Speak up, Mr. Edison."

And lo! Mr. Edison has gone and done it. He has a cradle with a telephone, a battery and a box containing magnets, and connected with a lever. The baby's cries are received by the telephone, which, operating through the battery and magnets, sets in motion the lever which rocks the cradle. When the baby stops crying the cradle ceases to rock.—Dunellen [New Jersey] Rock

From the Los Angeles [California] Herald (July 4, 1878):

The "Tasteograph" and "Feelophone" are said to be the two latest inventions. The latter will doubtless prove the most popular of all. It is intended to multiply and magnify pleasurable feelings or sensations to any requited extent and a thousand fold, if desired. The "Tasteograph," to the gourmand and bibulous admirer of Roederer or old Burgundy, will be indispensable to the augmentation of the delights of the papillæ. Bring on your 'phones!

From the [St. George, Utah] Union (July 12, 1878), reprinted from the Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye:

A "Phone" Worth Something

An intelligent farmer living in Des Moines county, has invented a henophone, modeled on the principle of the telephone, by which one old reliable hen occupying a central office in the henery sits on all the nests about the establishment, leaving the other fowls free to lay eggs, scratch and cackle.

From "Thomas Edison," in the [Carson City, Nevada] Morning Appeal (August 4, 1878):

"He [Edison] intended to stop here [in Reno] for a day for the purpose of seeing Frank Bell in relation to the introduction of his various "phones" on this division of the Western Union line, but Mr. Bell, being West on business, informed him by telegraph of his whereabouts, and the distinguished gentleman continued on his trip.

From "The Crowning Discovery," an advertisement in the Newberry [South Carolina] Herald (February 26, 1879) and in many other newspapers over the next several months:

All the "phones" of this phonetic age are surpassed in practical benefit to mankind, by the discovery of Allan's Anti-Fat, the great and only known remedy for obesity, or corpulency. It produces no weakness or other unpleasant or injurious effect, its action being simply confined to regulating digestion, and preventing an undue assimilation of the carbonaceous, or flesh-producing elements of the food.

From the Worthington [Minnesota] Advance (September 25, 1879):

One of our subscribers wants us to tell him about the telephone. We never tell a phone. Never told a phone in our life. We may say, however, that the telephone was invented by Edison. He did it with his little hatchet.


These examples underscore Jon Hanna's point that phone came into use—both as a short form of the word telephone and as a generic way of referring to "all those newfangled inventions that have phone in their names"—from a very early date after the invention of the telephone. Although telephone was more common than phone in published English for many years, and although it remains quite popular today, the short form phone is almost as old as the long form telephone.

Among other things, the excerpts include one example from March 1878 in which 'phone (with an apostrophe) appears as an abbreviated form of telephone, and one example from May 1879 in which phone (without an apostrophe) appears as an abbreviated form of telephone.


I came to this because I was reading a script set in the late 1970s in the UK, in which the phone is referred to several times as the 'telephone'. The rest of the script is fairly well researched so I wondered why that word jarred to much in my mind. Having grown up in the UK (I was born in 1971) although I admit there may have been a certain snobbery towards using the word 'phone' in print, I am certain the word telephone was LONG gone as far as the spoken word was concerned. I know this because I remember my father telling me at some point that phone was short for telephone and finding that extremely hard to believe. So this may not help much, but for me it proves that the Google ngrams theory of it happening in the early 1990s is wrong. Just as an add-on, I never heard my grandmother (born 1911) use the word 'telephone' either. So I think it must have happened not long after the invention. Just as the Brits rarely used the word 'television', preferring 'tele' very soon after its invention. And I never even SPOKE the word 'refrigerator' out loud until I arrived in the US in 2003!

  • Hi, Alice Evans, and welcome to EL&U. Your answer underscores an important difference between the published written English that Ngram tracks and spoken English. As a cross-check on Ngram's result for telephone vs. phone, I ran a search for telephoned vs. phoned; the results are remarkably similar, suggesting that a major split between published English and spoken English may exist on this point.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 23, 2015 at 19:19

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