I'm a professional translator looking for an English equivalent of a phrase that literally means 'the phones were hot' (–which doesn't really cut it in English!) I would actually associate a 'hot line' with a direct line between two people, such as the POTUS and Mr Putin. Phrases I have considered include: 'the phones never stopped ringing' (but this doesn't necessarily imply that they were actually constantly in use), and 'the phone system could barely cope' (but that doesn't have much of a ring to it [if you'll pardon the pun]). 'The phone lines were overloaded' is approaching what I'm looking for, but I'd like to find a phrase that is more graphic – more dramatic, in fact. I feel it is on the tip of my tongue, but it escapes me!

Additional info (as requested by a contributor): having thought more about the context, the phrase is used to describe what happened when managers within a huge company all suddenly reacted to a crisis by picking up the phone. Taking all the comments into consideration, the closest I can think of at this point is 'the phone lines were ablaze' (or 'overheating'), while a knowledgeable contributor has explained that 'congestion' is the correct technical term - which opens other avenues.

  • If you need to emphasize that the phones are not being put down maybe you could say something like "the phones were perpetually busy". It might help if you provided more context. – Silenus Sep 7 '16 at 13:39
  • Thank you. That does indeed encapsulate the meaning, though it still lacks the dramatic element of something like 'the phone lines were burning' - which is a possible option, but not really a widely-used idiom. (The context is the internal phone system of a large company that is experiencing a crisis.) – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 13:44
  • Silenus, your suggestion has also brought to mind 'the phones were abuzz'. (But I'm currently minded to stick with the phrase below, ending in 'activity'.) – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 15:45
  • "The phones were hot" does cut it in English. I know exactly what you mean, unless you happen to be selling phones, then I would assume you mean you're selling a lot of them. – fredsbend Sep 8 '16 at 5:10
  • In your context, "the phone lines were jammed" makes the most sense. – fredsbend Sep 8 '16 at 5:12

10 Answers 10

A standard idiom is that the phones are ringing off the hook.

North American (Of a telephone) be constantly ringing due to a large number of incoming calls:

once the word was out that we had tickets, the phone was ringing off the hook

ODO

It certainly isn't restricted to North America; it's used in Britain. It's an idiom because it's technically impossible for it to happen: the cradle is a physical switch which disconnects the bell circuit.

  • Thank you. That is exactly the kind of phrase I was looking for. It parallels the essential meaning, to a large degree. There's just a slight difference in that the focus is on phones that need to be answered, whereas the original phrase focuses on phones that are not being put down. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 12:58
  • @TheAdvocate If you're trying to describe e.g. a busy call center, then this is the term to use. If you're more interested in expressing that the phone is not being put down (i.e. calls are few but long), then I think you're asking the wrong question - high activity is associated with call rate, not duration. – talrnu Sep 7 '16 at 14:30
  • You raise a good point. The context largely relates to bosses within a corporation frantically calling those they are responsible for so that they will in turn respond appropriately to a dramatic crisis that just has arisen. (It could also include calls to outside agencies.) So the emphasis is actually on the phone system being overwhelmed by o u t g o i n g calls. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 14:50
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    I always interpreted this expression as implying that the phones were ringing so violently or insistently as to shake the handset off the hook (which was an actual hook in old phones). Obviously this is also not actually possible in the sense that the ring is not dependent on the number of people trying to get through. – nekomatic Sep 8 '16 at 8:37
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    @nekomatic: Yes, that was my interpretation too, and it's confirmed by other sources, e.g. the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says Etymology: based on the idea of having the telephone ring so much it causes the part you hold in your hand to fall off the part it rests on, and Wikipedia mentions that "Often cartoons will show a telephone handset literally bouncing above the ringing base unit". – psmears Sep 8 '16 at 11:06

Jammed

The standard English language phrase would be the switchboard was jammed dating back when all phone calls were routed by an operator. When too many people wanted to place a call they either could not get through or were required to wait longer than normal.

Once direct dialling was invented businesses (mainly media - newspapers & radio and then television) had operators answering phone lines. Unusually high call volumes led to those switchboard being jammed.

In modern times of IVR and call queues where a busy signal is rare, the lines are jammed still works. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/jam

Melted

However if you want to signify heat you could go with the phone lines melted.

Curiously melted does not imply failure or busy signals the way jammed does. Melted means the phones rang red hot.

We need to have the phone lines melted this week. We need people to melt the phone lines. Not to the House members, you don't need to call them, and you don't need to call the Republican Senators. It's the Democrat Senators that we need to melt their phone lines. ―Michele Bachmann via izquotes.com

We actually do have the idiom "burn(ing) up the (phone) lines" with a very similar meaning. I surprisingly can't find a definition, but I think some example usages give the gist pretty clearly:

Tom - You know, I can't get through on the phone at all anymore. Isn't your sister afraid her ear will grow over the receiver?

Daria - Actually, my mother's the one burning up the lines. My idiot cousin is suing her husband for a divorce, and mom got roped into handling it. (Daria transcript, ep. 510)


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been “burning up the phone lines” the past five days to try and lay the groundwork for a transition from indirect to direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks, aides say. (Laura Rozen, Politico, 2010)


Paris is burning--up the phone lines

Paris Hilton may be hot, but all of her friends are even hotter. Steamed, that is. Hackers somehow got ahold of the phone numbers stored in her cell phone and posted them online. "I got 100 calls in two hours," Victoria Gotti told New York Daily News. (Chicago Tribune, 2005)


Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio . . . says he's learned that the Bills are "burning up the phone lines" in an effort to trade up from the No. 9 pick to No. 1 or 2. (The Score, 2014)

Twitter feed (@MomsDemand Twitter post)

Note that this is something that someone does, so in your example you would need to say something like

The managers responded to the crisis by burning up the phone lines.

or just

The managers were burning up the phone lines.

  • I think burning up the phone lines means to make a lot of outbound phone calls. Which may mean what the OP was looking for. Most other phrases imply overwhelming inbound calls – paulzag Sep 8 '16 at 14:46

In my experience, people tend to talk about phone lines rather than the phones themselves to indicate high activity. The phone lines were on fire might do it but I suspect will sound novel to most readers.

It's more commonplace to hear phrases like the phones were lit up, or the phones lit up like a Christmas tree to convey that calls were coming in.

You may say:

The phone lines are/were swamped with calls.

or simply:

_________ (entity) is/was swamped with calls.

swamp - Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.

verb

TOO MUCH ​

to give someone more of something than they can deal with:

[ often passive ] The company was swamped with calls about its new service.

Also, refer to usage examples in Google Books Search:

Examples:

The White House switchboard was swamped with calls.

Our telephone line was swamped with calls.

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    This is clearly an improvement on 'overwhelmed', which was one of my earlier thoughts. However, as mentioned during the discussion, the phrase is used to describe what happened when managers within a huge company all suddenly reacted to a crisis by picking up the phone. This doesn't preclude the lines or the switchboard from being 'swamped', so to speak, but I would somehow normally associate the phrase 'swamped' with incoming as opposed to outgoing traffic. (Perhaps because it evokes thoughts of an incoming tide or wave.) – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 18:00
  • Ah, I see. In that case, you should edit your question and add those extra details. The phrases you mentioned in the question as already considered (and apparently abandoned) include the phones never stopped ringing and that clearly implies incoming calls. – alwayslearning Sep 7 '16 at 18:05
  • You're right. I've been grappling with the meaning myself, though. Another contributor insisted I shouldn't adapt the question - but I think I should add a little, as you say... – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 18:12

The technical term for overloading in a phone system is congestion. The over capacity built into the system to avoid congestion is expressed as the grade of service. So an overloaded system would be highly congested and operating well below its designed grade of service.

I think the 'ringing off the hook' metaphor relates more to a call centre being overloaded - too few agents to handle the incoming call rate. Grade of service relates to the outgoing call rate - is there a free outgoing trunk to give dial tone.

So you need to decide which scenario you are trying to describe.

  • Thanks, Julian. That's knowledgeable advice, and food for thought. Perhaps 'the lines became massively congested'? – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 18:47
  • Sounds fine. FYI military phone systems have a big red button to control this scenario. Its called 'minimize' and it locks out all but a few senior people from being able to make outgoing calls. – Julian Sep 7 '16 at 18:51
  • So it's not just hyperbole! Perhaps another way to get this across might be 'overcongested' - bearing in mind this is very much written for the layman. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 18:57
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    I like massively congested more - over-congested feels like there is a level of congestion which would be OK whereas for me, if the system is congested that is not OK. – Julian Sep 7 '16 at 19:02

I believe I may well actually go with: 'the phone lines were jammed'. It is not perfect, in that it still lacks the drammatic element, but it is a close equivalent.

(Additional thoughts would still be welcome.)

  • I was going to suggest this as well, but it should be sufficient to say the lines were jammed; physical lines of people can't really be jammed, although the concert hall or football stadium they are trying to get into may be. – choster Sep 7 '16 at 14:09
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    Good point! I'm now thinking along the lines of 'all the lines were jammed'. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 14:14
  • I tend to agree with jimm101 (below) as a matter of general principle. However, I'm now thinking that something like 'every phone was a hive of activity' might be a good option, as this would avoid the impression that the system was so snarled up that calls could not actually be made (which would imply a lot of the frenetic activity was ineffectual). – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 15:24
  • After mulling it over further, I think 'every phone was a hotbed of activity' would be an improvement, seeing as it incorporates the original suggestion of heat. But this has also led on to 'the phones were ablaze' (or 'ablaze with activity'). I'm not sure which is preferable, though. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 16:53
  • Taking all the contributions so far into consideration, I'm now inclined to go with 'the phone lines were ablaze'. I'm still open to further ideas, though. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 18:08

Saying the phone lines are "jammed" might be too informal for technical documentation. I think a better phrase would be to say the lines were "constantly busy"

  • Thanks Ocie. The phrase actually occurs in a text that is analysing how things went wrong within a business environment. The style is actually almost novel-like. – The Advocate Sep 7 '16 at 17:51
  • "Jammed" sounds like a good choice when telling a story in this style. – Ocie Mitchell Sep 15 '16 at 23:03

The graphic and dramatic phrase you seek may be:

The phone lines were bursting at the seams.

burst at the seams defined at TFD:

Be filled to or beyond normal capacity.

For example, On her wedding day the church was bursting at the seams, or

That was a wonderful meal, but I'm bursting at the seams.

This expression alludes to rupturing the seams of a garment too tight for the wearer and is generally used hyperbolically.

A relevant usage example from Google Books Search:

With its main exchange literally bursting at the seams, General Telephone Company of Indiana recently installed 2200 lines...

If the amount of calls received is preventing a party from reaching through, you can also say the "phone lines are all tied up"

  • Why would this get downvoted? That is a totally acceptable thing to say. – paulzag Sep 8 '16 at 2:15
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    @paulzag It is not sufficient on StackExchange to tell; you must explain. For example, this answer could be greatly strengthened simply by providing evidence of its use, in literature, journalism, or entertainment, and by citing a dictionary definition, e.g. TFD. – choster Sep 8 '16 at 15:05
  • @choster thanks for the explanation. – paulzag Sep 8 '16 at 15:09

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