For me, the title of Alfred Hitchcock's film Dial M for Murder is ambiguous, it may mean

  • either Dial M to order a murder (instead of a pizza) / for a murder to occur (similar to the previous, but without the delivery service connotation);

  • or Dial M if a murder occurred (it is like a police station number).

What does it really mean for native speakers, or is it deliberately obscure?

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    It's (deliberately or not) obscure to current-day native English speakers. It may have been less so in 1954, when everybody had heard slogans and catch-phrases which we've all forgotten now. – Peter Shor Feb 8 '16 at 13:19
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    As a non-native speaker the first thing I thought of was a variation of the phonetic alphabet. Something like "Dial M for Mike" - "Dial M for Murder" – jera Feb 8 '16 at 13:30
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    You're overthinking it. (It is, of course, referring to the rotary dial on an old telephone, where one would actually use the letters to dial, say, "JUniper 7-5321". And I'm vaguely recalling that the idiom was used in advertising slogans -- "Dial P for Plumber", eg.) – Hot Licks Feb 8 '16 at 13:49
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    To Americans in the 1950s, the preposition for, as used in a telephoning context (dial __ for ___), had no hint of "placing a phone order". for there meant simply "to reach your party". books.google.com/ngrams/… – TRomano Feb 8 '16 at 14:07
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    As I recall, when Ray Milland dials home to trigger the murder of Grace Kelly, the camera does a closeup of the phone dial. Is the first digit he dials a "6" (ie, coded with "M")? – Witness Protection ID 44583292 Feb 9 '16 at 5:42

It's a take-off on "dial O for operator".

For example, in Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire (1947), we have

Blanche: How do I get Western Union? — Operator! Western Union!
Stella: That's a dial phone, honey.
Blanche: I can't dial. I'm too —
Stella: Just dial O.
Blanche: O?
Stella: Yes. "O" for Operator.

Since dialing "O" gets you the operator, one might expect by analogy that dialing "M" would get you the murder (somehow ... the details are not filled in).

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    Absolutely. And after the quotidian convenience of dialling B for Bread, C for Cars etc, the chilling thought that you might dial M for MURDER!!!. – Dan Feb 8 '16 at 14:08
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    Isn't it 0 for operator as in zero? Or was it O first and later became 0? – Skooba Feb 8 '16 at 16:26
  • My local exchange, when I was a kid, was OXford 2 (692-[number here]). (Within the exchange, you could drop the OXford when dialing.) I doubt that dialing 6 in New Orleans would have gotten you very far. – bye Feb 8 '16 at 17:04
  • Note that it is not uncommon to say "O" instead of "0" when spelling out a phone number. Also, the Wikipedia article on how letters were assigned to rotary dials has some interesting information relevant in this context: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotary_dial#Letters – Thomas Feb 9 '16 at 10:33

It's a reference to the letters you sometimes see next to the numbers of a telephone pad (a rotary dial in those days). When telephone numbers were first introduced people were much more comfortable with letters than digits and would commonly give mnemonics for at least the first few digits of the number. In New York all the numbers in Flushing Meadows started with 35 corresponding to "FL". Glenn Miller had a song called "Pennsylvania 6-5000" (736-5000, apparently the number is still in use). It would not be uncommon when the movie (and earlier the play) came out for people to give part or all of a phone number using letters.

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  • youtube.com/watch?v=ilKd38HBfLg – TRomano Feb 8 '16 at 13:54
  • Another common usage that was frequently seen in media from that time period is dialing numbers starting with "KLondike-5-____". This of course translates to "555-____", which is still used today whenever they want to put a fake phone number in a movie or TV show. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 8 '16 at 17:53
  • The number PEnnsylvania 6-5000 is not only still in use, it's still in use by the original subscriber! – Michael Hampton Feb 8 '16 at 22:11
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    I don't think this is correct. Dial M for Murder is set in London and was based on a play of the same name, written in the UK by an English playwright (Frederick Knott), first performed on the BBC and then on the stage in London. I've never heard of the letters being used in phone numbers in the UK; most British rotary dial telephones didn't have them marked. If it was common to do use letters in the 1950s, when the play was written, it had fallen completely out of use by the 1980s. – David Richerby Feb 9 '16 at 5:54
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    @DavidRicherby The 1989s don't have anything to do with a movie made in the early 1950s. Telephone numbers like 'Mayfair 1234' were in use in London in the 1940s. – user207421 Feb 9 '16 at 11:11

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