A vanity number is a local or toll-free telephone number for which a subscriber requests an easily remembered sequence of numbers for marketing purposes.

While many of these are phonewords (such as 1-800-Flowers, 313-DETROIT, 1-800-Taxicab or 1-800-Battery), occasionally all-numeric vanity phone numbers are used.

Accorging to Google Books the expression is from the late ’80s but why ‘vanity’?

Is vanity number the more common expression to refer to these often used numeric/alphanumeric numbers?

Is it only AmE usage or is it used also in British or other English dialects?

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    Vanity numbers: by analogy with vanity plates. American usage, I'd think. Phone numbers aren't generally alphabetised that way in the UK. Vanity number is a new one to me. – tmgr Sep 18 at 15:21
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    @tmgr I don't think anywhere still alphabetises like that in the mobile era. But I definitely did see phone numbers like this in the UK in the 80s/90s. – Jontia Sep 18 at 15:50
  • @Jonita It's a dying art, indeed! I've seen 'em too, back in the day, but they were nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the States; we just didn't have the letters on our rented BT rotary phones. But all that's neither here nor there re OP's question; I don't think they were ever called vanity numbers in the UK, be they nice number combinations or phonewords. Still, vanity plate is now generally understood in the UK (as opposed to personalised number plate, which just rolls off the tongue), so I'd think most folk would 'get it' even if they'd never heard it. – tmgr Sep 18 at 15:59
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    Vanity phone numbers do exist in the UK, and have been around for decades, but the UK ones are based on numbers, not letters. For example the AA (automobile association) breakdown assistance number is 0800 88 77 66 - the 0800 is the UK "free call" prefix, and the rest is easy to remember. British Telecom's general enquiries number is 0800 800 150. Where I live, there are two taxi firms with numbers 626262 and 757575 (with the local area code prefix, of course). In a sense you could call numbers like 999 (emergency services) and 111 (health service 24-hour telephone support) vanity numbers. – alephzero Sep 18 at 19:51
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    In British English the phrase "personalised" or "personal" has been used as a more neutral description of things like these, as @tmgr mentions. "Vanity" has a slightly negative connotation as an unwelcome personality trait, as other answers and comments mention; but that doesn't appear to be the case in US English, and this usage is becoming more accepted in British English usage as well. – Jim Sep 18 at 23:00

The AHD's primary meaning of the noun vanity is typical:

Excessive pride in one's appearance or accomplishments; conceit.

It follows that a vanity product or service is one that is purchased in order to feed one's vanity, by drawing attention or by artificially boosting one's stature to outward appearances. The oldest derived term in the OED is vanity publisher, attested from at least 1922, a publisher who publishes only at the author's expense. In other words, a vanity publisher is a press that someone pays so that he or she can call him- or herself a published author, in contrast to a traditional publisher, which would pay the author for printing rights, as well as in contrast to self-publishing, where the author produces and maintains control of the entire product.

A more familiar term is vanity plate, for a car license plate on which the registrant chooses a custom/personal word or slogan instead of having random letters or numbers assigned.

Vanity license plate reading JEDIIAM from Wikimedia Commons

Vanity phone numbers, vanity URLs, vanity DNS nameservers… these are all very mildly disparaging terms for ways where someone can pay a little extra money to stand out from the crowd.

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    It doesn't strike me as disparaging, per se, but I agree with the rest of your answer. – Azor Ahai Sep 18 at 19:24
  • It doesn't have to be about paying money. A custom Bitcoin address generated by expending computing power is called a vanity address, for example. – forest Sep 19 at 3:25

Usually things are given the "Vanity" prefix when you're paying extra to get something that doesn't serve a functional purpose.

As @tmgr noted, the most common analogy is Vanity Plates, a car license plate that spells a word, but doesn't add anything, Like this one for £4000. Vanity publishing, is where an author pays for something to be published instead of the publisher paying the author, which is the more traditional situation.

The underlying premise is that the person buying this vanity service wants it for nothing more than to show off. It is potentially slightly misplaced with respect to these phone numbers, as they serve the purpose of making the businesses' number more memorable than a rival service. Very useful in the pre-mobile era.

From Google dictionary

vanity 1. excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements. "it flattered his vanity to think I was in love with him" synonyms: conceit, conceitedness, self-conceit, narcissism, self-love, self-admiration, self-regard, self-absorption, self-obsession, self-centredness, egotism, egoism, egocentrism, egomania;

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    I'm not sure why vanity phone numbers would be less useful in the "mobile era". Sure, these days you can save numbers on your phone and attach a name to them, so you don't have to remember your friend's phone numbers. But with a business name, the idea is that you see or hear it in an advertisement and remember it later. Like, I don't have 1-800-FLOWERS on my cell phone. But if I had a sudden desire to order flowers, I remember that number even though I've never called them in my life. – Jay Sep 18 at 15:58
  • @Jay, while that's true, in the mobile era I don't have to remember any numbers any more because the last flower shop I used is already in my phone. A decent website is more useful than a memorable number, so maybe I should have said "smart phone" rather than "mobile" era. – Jontia Sep 18 at 16:07

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