The January 6 congressional committee is currently investigating a burning question: Did former President Donald Trump use a burner phone during the assault on the US Capitol? But I’m more interested in a side issue: where does the term “burner phone” come from?
For those of you who have never been involved in criminal activity – and hopefully there may be a few – a cell phone is an inexpensive prepaid mobile phone that you can use one or twice, then discard. This allows you to create a temporary or unidentifiable phone number that cannot be easily traced back to you.
These devices are called “burner phones” (or “burners”) because they are often destroyed, not by burning them, but by dumping them in storm drains, dumpsters or, preferably, the ocean.
The name “burner”, which means “something that burns”, has been around for a long time; think Bunsen burner. But it’s unclear exactly how and why “burner” came about as an adjective to describe a disposable phone.
I suspect what lit this match was the old “Mission Impossible” TV show, which aired from 1966 to 1973. As you may recall, each episode began with a tape recorder playing a message outlining a mission. secret agent.
Then the tape would self-destruct by smoking and, presumably, burning, although no actual flames were shown (and no actual tape recorders were damaged).
Dictionary editors Merriam Webster traced the first known use of the phrase “burner phone” to 1996, when rapper Kingpin Skinny Pimp referred to “talkin’ on the burner phone” in his song “One Life 2 Live “.
The term’s popularity was undoubtedly fueled by its frequent use in the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” which aired from 2002 to 2008. The following excerpt from an episode (expletive removed) actually provides a vocabulary lesson useful :
Kima: What’s going on with these phones? I’ve seen kids throw them all day. They have money like that to waste? They’re lying everywhere, man. Sometimes you find minutes on them, sell them for walking cash.
Mello: They’re burning, Kima.
Google’s N-gram app, which tracks how often words appear on paper, shows that the use of “burning phone” skyrocketed in the early 2010s.
The term has now sparked a range of similar terms for disposable accounts in other media, for example, “password burner”, “email burner” and “app burner”. In fact, it is a “column of burners” and it will self-destruct in five seconds. Read quickly!
Rob Kyff, professor and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your linguistic observations. Her new book, “Mark My Words,” is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Email your abuse and abuse reports, along with examples of good writing, to [email protected] or by mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.
Photo credit: andreas160578 on Pixabay