Coined through onomatopoeic metonymy (approximating the sound telephones used to make), and appeared surprisingly soon after the phone’s invention. First use in the OED is from Punch in 1880: “For you upon them both may frown, And say that you are shocked, or May knock the Secretary down, And then ring up the Doctor.”

That is a verb form, meaning “to place a phone call to”; American equivalents are call, call up, or phone. The noun form give (someone) a ring appears roughly the same time.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

Google Ngram shows interesting patterns in the various forms in British and American English. For one thing, the phrase give me a ring has historically been about equally popular in Britain and the U.S. Currently, following a three-decade upswing, it shows significantly more frequent use here. We also will frequently say something like, “I answered on the fourth ring”–notwithstanding, of course, that telephones don’t make ring-like sounds anymore. And who can forget Ernestine’s “One ringy dingy, two ringy dingies…”?

Verb forms are still more frequent in the U.K. although, typically for a NOOB, U.S. use has spiked since 1990.

The British verb use is more complicated and interesting. The chart below shows British usage of “ring me up” (blue) and “ring me” (red) between 1900 and 2008. Up until about 1940, hardly said merely “ring me”–the phrase had to be “ring me up.” (The OED’s first cite for the up-less ring is 1930) The short form achieved equal popularity around 1980, and currently is used about twice as often. My hypothesis is that ring up sounds to British ears like a stage caricature of the way they talk, so they are in the process of rejecting it–kind of like “telly” or “I say, old boy.”

Another form, still far more popular in U.K. than U.S. is ring off, equivalent to the (anachronistic) American hang up. My Facebook friend Scott Huler mentioned to me coming across this verb phrase in a suspense novel by Lawrence Block. I Googled the author’s name and “rang off” and was presented in at least eight novels in which Block had used the phrase, including this from this year’s “A Drop of the Hard Stuff”: “The phone rang twice, and I rang off before she could answer. I called Greg. The machine picked up, and I rang off.”
A day later, an investor rang him, inquiring about increasing his share of the partnership. (New York Times, November 12, 1989)/I rang him one recent overcast morning to talk about Canta Lechuza, the album of pop songs he’s recorded as Helado Negro (or “Black Ice Cream” in Spanish), which is out today on Asthmatic Kitty.(Village Voice, May 10, 2011)

14 thoughts on ““Ring”

  1. My hypothesis is that ring up sounds to British ears like a stage caricature of the way they talk, so they are in the process of rejecting it–kind of like “telly” or “I say, old boy.”

    It doesn’t. And as for telly, I suspect most Brits don’t even realise it’s British.

    I’d say this is just part of the general slow process of naturalisation into British English of many many such formerly American expressions. I think I speak a fairly conservative form of British English but I’ve noticed my own usage has changed in a few such cases: Christian name->first name, in the street->on the street, etc. I still don’t say raised for brought up, though! There’s no rationalising why some of these catch on and others don’t.

    Even call (on the phone) doesn’t sound that foreign any more. I suspect I don’t say either ring or ring up any more; what comes most naturally to mind is to phone, though I don’t perceive that as American, as I would with call.

    As for ring/ring up, that might be seen as part of a general tendency to drop the preposition in such cases. For example, we used to head off, now we just “head”; it’s no longer cool to check something out, it’s cooler to “check it”.

  2. I’d agree with Harry. And while I’d also be more likely to “phone someone” than to “ring someone”, I should say that “telly” is still alive and in very good health!

  3. I notice that in current British TV that the term “ring” instead of “phone” or “call” isn’t used much. Too bad. I do hate to see expressions go by the wayside.

  4. After reading through this blog, I’ve gotten the impression that, witha few exceptions scattered throughout, the primary sources for American adoption of NOOBs are New York publications. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I have to question this. The city’s proximity and its denizens’ ease of travel to and from the UK, combined with a regional history of settlement and culture, as well as whatever strains of linguistic prestige/insecurity that abound in the New York media world could all lead to a greater influence of British English than in the rest of the US. I have nothing against New York–really!–I just wonder about the sampling.

  5. Excellent points all. On the sourcing for the quotations, a big part of it is the limited number of free searchable databases that go back more than a couple of weeks: for older quotations, my go-to sites are Time, Slate, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, all of which are based in New York. (For current quotations, I generally use Google News, which aggregates publications from all over the country.) Beyond that, the blog generally pays more attention to Britishisms in the media than among regular people (no matter where they live). In my view, Britishisms are a media/journalistic/literary phenomenon, an example of writers trying (consciously or not) to be fresh/hip/clever/stylish. Sometimes, these locutions filter down to the public, sometimes not. I am working on a post called “What It All Means” that will get into these issues in more detail.

  6. …writers trying (consciously or not) to be fresh/hip/clever/stylish.” An excellent point; that is evidently the way expressions travel in both directions. People writing for newspapers in England, especially the vacuous “Me Me” columns, are constantly using phrases their readers would not naturally use: “school yard”, “peek”, “ferris wheel”, and probably thousands of others. Perhaps that influences us to use them later. (I asked my daughter (young, living in that city of youth, Manchester) about the expression “Christian name”, and she says it is used all the time.)

  7. It seems to me that ‘call’ is also becoming more popular in the U.K., replacing ‘ring’. The American ‘hang up’ I hear most often in the U.K. as ‘put the phone down’, with an implication of mild violence that is not belied by the words themselves: ‘I called Rupert Murdoch for a comment, and he immediately put the phone down on me.’
    What do Americans say these days for the equivalent ‘hang up’?

  8. ‘Up’ is forming so many phrasal verbs nowadays that maybe some of the older ones have to give way to make room. ‘Head up’ I kind of understand, but when I first heard ‘headed-up paper’ I almost had a fit! Now it seems to be the norm. Most times it adds nothing, as in ‘wrap up’ (a parcel) or ‘meet up’, although in some cases the meaning changes, as in ‘hit up’. Clearly it added nothing to ‘ring’, and it was unlikely to be confused with any other possible meaning of ‘ring’, so why was it ever used?

    Other points: ‘telly’ is still pretty universal over here, although not with posh people, but ‘I say, old boy’ and its like were only ever used by toffs, if at all, as with whole swathes of upper-class slang and expressions found in Wodehouse and very rarely elsewhere. Interestingly, in ngram that phrase does not appear in the BrE corpus but does so sporadically in the AmE one. Strange.

    Re Harry’s comment, ‘check it out’ first appears in ngram in 1960 for both BrE and AmE. In my experience it initially gained a specific meaning in BrE for things that were previously signed out(such as library books, files, and people in controlled areas), while mere checking would be just ‘check it’. More recently the Americanism has predominated. Now airport check-in desks are universal and checking-out ditto, although Brits seldom check in objects that haven’t previously been checked out (old BrE sense), like hats with hat-check girls.

    I thought I would just mention the jocular ‘Give me a bell’, ‘Bell me’ or even ‘Gissa bell’.

    1. For clarity, the sense of “check it (out)!” I meant was “take a look, see what you make of it” etc, not airports or libraries or whatever. Interesting point that “sign out” is naturally disappearing as signatures aren’t so often the method used now.

  9. “Ring off” and “ring up” were certainly American usage at one time. I suspect the purposes were to contact the operator and to notify the operator that the call was over.


    [Telephony 1908, a monthly journal]

    The Farmers’ and Merchants’ Mutual Telephone Company has installed sixty six phones in Waubay up to the present writing. Several more are yet to be put in. The new telephone is the handiest thing – there is no ring up or ring off to it. Just take down the receiver and an electric light flashes on your number at central; when you quit talking hang up the receiver and the light central goes out. Misses Winnie Hanna and Ada Butler are the operators . Waubay (S.D.) Clipper

  10. To say ‘ring off/rang off’ makes zero sense. To ‘give someone a ring’ does make sense. It implies you will call them, they will hear the ring tone and hopefully answer.
    But hanging up the phone/ending the phone call has ZERO to do with the ring tone a phone makes when somebody calls! End the call, finish the call, hang up. Those make perfect sense.
    To say ‘rang off’ is like saying ‘the bird sang off’ (the bird stopped chirping).

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