"Butt dial" still waiting for its M-W word induction ceremony

« previous post | next post »

The compound butt-dial, used as a verb meaning to call someone accidentally on a cell phone, or as a noun referring to such a call, is now commonplace enough to be used in the media without any scare quotes: "The butt-dial heard round the world"; "Giuliani butt dial story inspires ridicule, envy on social media" ("'Butt dial me,' one journalist said to Giuliani"); "Giuliani talks about needing cash in butt-dial to NBC News reporter"; "Guiliani Butt-Dials Reporter Not Once, But Twice".

This coinage has been around for a dozen years, more or less. I would have thought that the butt-dialing phenomenon arose with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, spread more widely along with the idea of an open-face cell phone touch screen, and then word butt-dial crystalized in the collective consciousness at some point after that. But the OED has an entry for butt dial v. with an Urban Dictionary citation from 2005:

2005 A. Peckham Urban Dict. 65 Butt dial, to accidentally call someone when your phone is in your pocket. She heard me call her a bitch 'cause my phone butt dialled her.

And the OED's first citation for butt dial n. is from June of 2007:

2007   www.computerworld.com 22 June   Like many people these days, Sara Winkler dreads being the butt of ‘butt dialing.’

The word is referenced in David Pogue's 2012 book iPhone: The Missing Manual

And there's a Wiktionary entry "butt dial". But as far as I can tell,  butt-dial has yet to get its word induction ceremony at Merriam-Webster.



  1. Frans said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 6:51 am

    Really, there are no citations for pocket dialing/pocket calling/butt dialing prior to '05? I find that quite surprising.

    According to the ANW, the oldest citation they could find for broekzakbellen (pocket calling) is from '03. Even that feels a bit late; I'm reasonably sure we already used that verb around '01.

  2. jkreuscher said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    It's interesting, at least to me, that the anachronism "dial" persists for this usage. Couldn't this have been a "butt-call"? Too bad "bootie-call" is already used for something else.

  3. Viseguy said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 1:50 pm

    Many early cell phones (I've had one since '93) were open-face slabs with analog buttons, so the possibility of placing calls non-digitally existed well before the smartphone era. It's possible, though, that butt-dials were rare back then because people hadn't yet become inseparable from their phones. (Mine didn't become an everyday carry until the early aughts, and I got my first smartphone last year.) Since my phone lives in my side pocket, however, my stray calls are always hip-dialed — no ifs, ands or but{1,2}s.

  4. Brian said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

    jkreuscher: I remember a woman describing her mother unknowingly using "booty-call" as a synonym for "butt dial", with very unfortunate-sounding results. "I booty-called my son last night," or something along those lines.

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

    Butt-dialing was certainly a phenomenon on "candy bar" phones of the 1990s and 2000s, but it was much more difficult to accidentally call someone from one's contact list. I recall stories of people unintentionally calling emergency services in this way, and getting hit with crank-call fines.

  6. Frans said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 4:40 pm

    @Garrett Wollman
    Much more difficult? What a curious way to write much easier. :)

  7. Kristian said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 7:18 am

    I would expect this is to be relatively rarer in the smartphone era. On an old fashioned Nokia phone an accidental call could be placed on an unlocked phone by pressing the down arrow and then the call button (and these were often more prominent than the other buttons), but on my Android phone it requires at last 4 taps of the screen from the home screen to place a call. Besides, aren't people much more careful about locking their phones considering how much personal information is on them?

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    Posession of a smartphone has clearly not made Giuliani much more careful.

  9. Chandra said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 6:46 pm

    @Kristian – I think more recent generations of most smartphones require multiple steps for calling, precisely to prevent butt-dialing, so it wouldn't surprise me if this phenomenon is on the decline. I've never accidentally called someone with my current phone. I have however taken several accidental photos of the inside of my pocket, since it's only a one-step process to open a camera from the lock screen.

  10. Jenny Chu said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 11:24 pm

    There is an oft-shared screenshot from Tumblr (?) about phrases which mean-the-same-but-don't. It includes:

    "Cottage in the forest" vs "Cabin in the woods"
    "Butt dial" vs "booty call"
    "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned" vs "Sorry, Daddy, I've been naughty"

  11. Michael Watts said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 12:19 am

    This has come up before, and as far as I recall it wasn't answered — what is the difference supposed to be between "cottage in the forest" and "cabin in the woods"?

  12. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 8:07 am

    @Michael – a cottage in the forest is a vacation or camping spot, while a cabin in the woods is a horror movie trope.


  13. Michael Watts said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    It doesn't look like this distinction actually exists: a Google search for "cabin in the woods -movie" throws up a collection of rental offerings which are actually named "cabin in the woods". A cabin in the woods, according to this, is a pleasant, relaxing getaway.

    There's also a Bob Ross episode and an organization devoted to providing homes for veterans.

RSS feed for comments on this post