The meaning of ‘brinnng’

2 years ago

A telephone ring just doesn’t mean what it used to. 

We learned stuff in grade school that, to today’s youth, often seems downright laughable — like how to use the phone.

When I was at Gouldville Elementary School here in Presque Isle (I won’t say the years but let’s just say it was a groovy time), people from Ma Bell would show up once or twice a year for an up-close and personal look at the telephone. This was way cooler if my uncle, who worked for the phone company, was the one who visited.

The technicians would set up a display and show us how the instrument worked. They’d take the phone apart so we could see the guts of the thing while they explained how telephone signals traveled through the wires, to and from our homes. Then we kids could take turns “calling” and “answering.” 

They even covered telephone etiquette, setting up mock situations where we’d learn how to speak properly on the phone. We practiced answering, from the more formal “Hello, Jones residence, Mary speaking” to the simple “Hello.”  We tried calling: “Hello, this is John. May I speak to Tom?” 

We learned what not to do, too. This was great fun because we got to practice being rude.  We’d growl “Whattaya want?” or the forbidden “WHOOZIS?” 

Of course, phones were rotary models back then. Remember those dials with holes for each number and a finger stop? It took a bit to dial a number. Then Touch-Tone came in; well, that was real uptown. Imagine, just pushing buttons to dial a phone number, and each number sequence played a melody. 

Now we just need to hit redial or click on the contact.  Smartphones are used for everything imaginable — and sometimes phone calls. That old, familiar “brinnng” has been replaced with quirky melodies and sound effects.  

But the old rotary phones definitely had their charm. It was a more deliberate action, calling someone, when you had to work a little to do it. And there was no mistaking that loud bell-like ring that echoed through the house.

Just imagine what would happen if someone who’d never seen a rotary phone was told to make a call on one.

And, of course, there’s a video for that. Someone shared it with me. Parents are videoing two teenagers after setting an old rotary phone in front of them.  They have to figure out how to make it work.

This is hilarious. They scratch their heads, pick up the receiver and put it down again, without actually putting it up to their ears. They play with the buttons on the phone base’s cradle. They grab the receiver again, turning it end for end, and stare.

“What do you hear when you pick it up?” asks a woman off screen. 

They look quizzically at it, saying nothing.  Then they’re asked to dial a number. Eyebrows are raised.

“What’s with all the holes?” asks one teen. 

The other is concentrating on doing something with the dial. After a few tries, he finally decides to start at “0” and go all the way around to the metal stop. 

“You’ve successfully dialed 0,” says a man behind the camera.

They fidget and fumble. “Hm. Oh, wait — ahhh,” says one, who has figured out that maybe you start at the hole corresponding to a number and move the dial to the stop. Success.

This sounds so funny — but just reverse it. Someone who has grown up with an old-school phone is handed a smartphone.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Paula Brewer is assistant editor for The Star-Herald, Aroostook Republican, Houlton Pioneer Times, St. John Valley Times and Piscataquis Observer, plus websites TheCounty.ME and She can be reached at 207-764-4471 or via email at