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Why is there no Q on the telephone dial?

Dear Cecil:

Why is there no Q on the phone dial? Z is also missing, but it's the last letter and there's no room for it anyway.

Emi D., Baltimore

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Say what you will about Ma Bell, you have to admit these people had vision. Phone company planners made a conscious decision to exclude Q the better part of a century ago and history has been proving they were geniuses ever since. It all started when the phone company began replacing human operators with mechanical switching equipment, which necessitated the use of dials. Bell wished to retain its folksy exchange names (since discontinued), but for reasons we’ll get to in a moment elected to assign letters to only eight of the ten available digits. At three letters per number, that meant two were destined not to make the cut. Since Z was the last letter anyway, it was an easy one to eliminate. The selection of the other came down to deciding which of the remaining 25 was the most useless, the principal candidates presumably being Q and X. The records of the debate within the phone company on this weighty topic are lost to history. But it seems clear that since Q must always be followed by U, except in the case of foreign aberrations like QAtar, it lends itself to fewer letter combinations than X (although the possibility of ending up with brain-damaged appellations like XAnadu, XErxes and XRay strikes me as a pretty strong counterargument). In any case, X was chosen for immortality while Q was consigned to the dustbin of telephony.

The obvious question in all this is why the phone company didn’t assign letters to the number 1, which would have permitted the entire alphabet to make the trip. This is where the genius part comes in. It turns out that Bell wanted to reserve 0 and 1 for special “flag” functions when used in the first couple of positions in the dialing sequence. 0, of course, is used to signal the operator. An initial 1 nowadays indicates a long distance number and is also used in shorthand numbers as 411 (directory assistance), 611 (phone repair), 911 (emergency dispatch), and 011 (international long-distance access). Until a few years ago, the second digit of every area code was either a 0 or a 1, another cue for the switching computers. (Starting all long distance numbers with 1 eliminated the need for this practice and made it possible to create many more area codes, but that’s a topic for another day.) Assigning letters to the number 1 would have meant that it occasionally would be used as one of the first two digits of an ordinary local call, which would have fouled up the routing system.

Is that farsighted or what? I mean, who knew from area codes in 1925? Anyway, that’s why high school pranksters can tell people they’ll win a thousand dollars if they call QUincy 5-2000.

Cecil Adams

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