by Ross Eckler
Word Ways, 1981


Telephomnemonics, a portmanteau or blend word coined by Dave Silverman in his August 1970 Kickshaws column, can be defined as the choice of letters on the telephone dial to form a word or phrase, as an aid for remembering seven-digit telephone numbers. Although there are three different letters for each number, permitting in principle the formation of 2187 different "words.", most of these are likely to be gibberish. A telephone number which forms a common-seven-letter word is somewhat unusual. (In fact, any telephone number containing either 0 or 1 is automatically disqualified, for no letters correspond to these.) With luck, a two- or three-word meaningless phrase can be formed: HOLY PIG, ON A SONG, I DECIDE and UP STICK have all been used by telephone subscribers, according to the February 2, 1970 issue of Time magazine. Some telephomnemonics reported there showed considerable ingenuity. Los Angeles mathematician Angela Dunn created the word GRADLUP for a pharmacist friend, who was so charmed that he invented the "Gradlup Vermouth and Scotch." San Francisco producer-director Alan Myerson answered GOLLYGO instead of "hello" to his callers, and author Don Mankiewicz argued that his telephomnemonic, TNT BYRD, was the answer to the question "What do you use to blast your way through the ice, Amundsen?"

If one cannot form a suitable telephomnemonic from his present telephone number, what are the prospects for requesting a new number with a better pattern? By analogy with automobile license plates, one might call such numbers vanity numbers. It is a little surprising that the Bell System has not yet recognized that these could be promoted as a new source of revenue among its residential subscribers. (Commercial establishments frequently tailor their numbers to their messages, as WANT ADS for the Houston Post classified department or CHANNEL for Channel Lumber.)

Perhaps people have discounted the possibility of telephomnemonics because one is apparently restricted to a single telephone exchange in which the first three digits are specified, greatly reducing the mnemonic possibilities. However, matters are not quite as bad as they appear. In larger towns or cities, several different telephone exchanges are located in the same building; and it is only a little more difficult for the telephone company to substitute one three-digit exchange for another. Finally, one could ask the telephone company to reroute one's telephone through an exchange in another building (in telephonese, through a "foreign exchange") via a tie line. Of course, the charge for such a service rearrangement would be greater. Deciding upon a suitable telephomnemonic is a balance of economics and appropriateness (ease of recall). One ought to be willing to put up with more inconvenience and cost for a really good telephomnemonic.

Although the choice of a mnemonic is rather subjective, it seems clear that certain ones are more valuable than others. The best, it seems to me, are those involving one's name, making it easy for others to recall one's telephone number. The ideal is a seven-letter surname: "if you want to call me, just dial J-A-C-K-S-O-N."

How frequently can such a high-quality telephomnemonic be formed? To get some notion of this, I surveyed the number of people in the Morris County telephone directory with seven-letter surnames matching certain exchanges. In exchanges with a high proportion of residential subscribers (not used by businesses with large private branch exchanges), I found an average of four people bearing 2.5 different seven-letter surnames:

267 Borelli, Coppess, Corbett (2 people), Cornell, Cornish, Cortese (2 people)

335 Delancy, Delaney, Feldman (5 people), Fellows

366 Donahue (3 people), Donetti, Donhowe, Donovan

538 Lettier, Levertt

539 none

635 Melcher (2 people), Melillo

647 Nissley

One of these people actually had six out of his seven digits correct! If transfer to other exchanges is allowed, these numbers would be increased by a factor of perhaps 20 in a suburban area like Morris, and even more in a large city.

Of course, not all of these people can be simultaneously satisfied. Only one person with a given seven-letter surname can be accommodated in a numbering plane area (identified by the three area code digits). One can speculate that the competition for the number 564-6766 (spelling Johnson) would be intense. Social Security records of this surname suggest that in a fully-loaded residential exchange with 10,000 subscribers one can on the average expect 75 people with this surname. Put another way, perhaps 100 of the approximately 1.8 million Johnsons in the United States can be accommodated. Present owners of this telephone number ought to hold out for substantial cash payments to yield it up; speculators might want to acquire unused numbers for future sale. (Similar arguments, of course, apply to other common seven-letter surnames such as Jackson, Roberts, Stewart, Collins or Edwards.)

To encourage vanity number use, the telephone company could make the option of choosing a vanity number more attractive by allowing the subscriber to use the mnemonic as his directory listing. As this practice caught on, letter mnemonics would catch the eye of other people looking up numbers in the directory, alerting them to the possibility of this wordplay.

In a survey of the commonest 40 or so seven-letter surnames in 25 large-city telephone directories across the united States, I found only one example of a residential subscriber with a telephomnemonic, Laurie L. Johnson of San Francisco. She wrote:

I [moved] into a location served by the correct telephone exchange by chance, and as a result, there was no charge or fee to get the was also my luck that the number was available. Had it been in use, all I could have done is request that I be contacted upon the numbers' availability. Had I not been so fortunate in being in an area serving the exchange I wanted I still could have obtained the telphone number, but I would have had to pay a fee as a monthly charge based on how many miles I was located outside the proper area...It has been fun to have a personalized telephone number...The reactions of some are amusing...I'll tell you one thing for sure...nobody has ever told me they forgot my number.

Readers with chutzpah may prefer a faster (although more expensive) way of conducting a search for vanity numbers--pick a seven-letter surname, dial it, and ask for Mr. X when it is answered. (If the answerer appears confused, apologize for a wrong number and hang up!)

If vanity telephone numbers became commonplace, what impact would they have on unlisted phone numbers? I believe that an easy-to-guess vanity number would not be used by someone who prized his privacy, for it would be too easy for strangers to take advantage of it. For example, would Senator Edward Kennedy or his sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy, both of whom live in the McLean, Virginia area, be tempted to use the telephone number 536-6339, available in the McLean exchange?

For those not blessed with a seven-letter surname, other possibilities are available. People with six-letter or five-letter surnames can add their initials, and others can use their full names (Ed Walsh, Bob Dole, Jay Ames). The first name alone is also a possibility (Roberta, Thomas, Charles).

If a name-mnemonic is unavailable, consider using one involving one's job or hobby. Dave Silverman suggested Polymer for an organic chemist, and one can easily construct many more: Surgeon, Pitcher, Geology, Justice, Codicil, Fashion, Haircut, Bassoon, Cashier, Keyhole (for a detective), Dentist, Numbers, Florist, Chemist, Teacher and Plumber.

A final logological question: how should the letters on the telephone dial be arranged in order to make telephomnemonics as easy as possible? The simplest modification of the alphabet on the telephone dial is to insist that letters must appear in alphabetical order but with other splits, such as AB/CD/EFG/HIJK/LMN/OP/QR/ST/UV/WXYZ, which uses all 26 letters and 10 digits. One should make sure that common letters appear in each group; what split, say, maximizes the number of seven-letter words that can be spelled out? Or maximizes the number of different combinations that spell out seven-letter words? A more radical restructuring would allow letters to be scrambled into ten groups. Alas, the Bell System is most unlikely to consider any such changes, no matter how beneficial they might be to telephomnemoniacs!

Back to Word Ways articles
Back to Word Ways home