Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Episode 104: Screen Your Calls Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 104: Screen A Call

Record Date: March 14, 2021

Air Date: March 17, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week I want to talk telephones. Or maybe more specifically, only talking to the people I want to talk to on the telephone, through the phrase “screening your phone calls”. 

This comes to us from listener Jaxx, who said they were listening to their mom sing a song about spiders and screening calls. We’ll talk more about that song a little later in the show…


This is a completely valid question and one that I hadn’t ever thought of as needing an explanation. The phrase screen your calls has been used my entire life and I took for granted that I knew what it meant. Which is, of course, part of the thing with idiomatic expressions. Native speakers usually understand them because they were raised with the phrase, but non-native speakers might not because the words don’t quite make sense. 

And since screen, to many people, is the thing you put outside your windows to keep the bugs out, or the place where you watch movies, tv, or get your internet. I can see the confusion. 

There is a technical term for this and it’s called Call Screening:

This is defined by Angel Kempf and Patrick Remington in their 2007 paper “New Challenges for Telephone Survey Research in the Twenty-First Centruy” published in Annual Review of Public Health as 

the process of evaluating the characteristics of a telephone call before deciding how or whether to answer it”

Kempf, Angela M.; Remington, Patrick L. (2007). "New Challenges for Telephone Survey Research in the Twenty-First Century". Annual Review of Public Health


The call screening wikipedia pages notes

Some methods may include:

In addition, in the US and Canada, Call Screen is the name of a calling feature offered by the telephone companies that allows a customer to establish a list of numbers; anyone calling the customer from those numbers will receive an automatic message indicating that the call is not being accepted. Another name, not usually used for marketing purposes, is "Selective Call Rejection". 

I had unusually high hopes for finding some good origins on this one. I reasoned it can’t be too old since the telephone was only invented in the late 1800s, With Antonio Meucci constructing telephone-like devices in 1854 and Alexander Graham Bell being awarded the first US patent in 1876. 

The invention of the telephone marked a rapid expansion. The first “phone call” happening on March 10, 1876 (Mr. Bell, to his assistant in the next room saying: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

By 1877, the first regular telephone line was constructed between Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts. By 1880 there were almost 50,000 telephone across America. By 1892 there were telephone lines connecting New York to Chicago. (which according to Google Maps, is just under 800 miles)

As an interesting aside… The Bell Telephone company was founded by Alexander Graham Bell’s father in law for the purpose of holding potentially valuable patents. But by mid-1878 the Bell Telephone Company had over 10,000 phones in service. Today, The Bell Telephone Company goes by a different name, and one you have likely heard of… American Telephone and Telegraph. Though you probably know it by it’s initialism… AT&T

Much of the information I just read came from a cool article by Johnson Hur on The link is in the shownotes which are always free on,York%20and%20Boston%20were%20connected

But after that little Bunny Trails into the history of the telephone, let’s look back at our phrase. 

Screening ones Calls...


Originally, of an aide, assistant, etc.: to establish the details of (incoming communications, esp. telephone calls) and make a decision on whether to transfer to the intended recipient. 

Now frequently: to establish the details of (incoming communications, esp. telephone calls) using automated means (as by a display on a telephone), in order to determine whether or how to respond.

So the phrase originated as what we might now refer to as “gatekeeping”.

You may also see this phrase being shortened to just, “screening”, as in are you screening me? I’ve called you every day for the last week and you never answer?

Why screen? 

The word screen comes to us from the Latin screna and as early at the 1300s it was: 

A movable piece of furniture consisting of an upright board or of a sheet of fabric, leather, or other material stretched in a frame (or of two or more such panels hinged together), used to reduce the intensity of heat felt from a domestic fire or conceal the grate when not in use, or to provide shelter from draughts.

So screen was thing, which then got verbified in the late 1500s or early 1600s to mean: To shield or protect (someone or something) from danger, harm, hostility, etc.; esp. to protect or save (an offender) from punishment, detection, or exposure.

At the same time, it was also being used to mean: To hide from view with or as with a screen; to hide or obscure partly or completely.

So in the 1940s, when businessmen wanted to someone to protect them from unwanted phone calls, it made sense to use the word “screen”. 


1947   Telephony 5 Apr - With a series of questions from Illinois Operators:  What is meant by ‘screening’ calls? What are some of the advantages to “screening” calls?


1966   N.Y. City Veterinarian Mar. 13/1   By instructing my telephone answering service to screen calls that come in after office hours.

1979   D. L. Barlett & J. B. Steele Empire xii. 296   They [sc. the aides]..screened his telephone calls.

1999   Daily Mail (Nexis) 28 Dec. 19   BT admitted it was screening email over the festive period.

2005   T. Hall Salaam Brick Lane v. 105   She bought herself a caller ID display so that she was able to screen incoming calls.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the first attestation as 1947. 

1947, from the periodical “Telephony” Volume 132 from April 5, 1947. On page 27 there is a segment called “Questions from Illinois Operators” including:

What is meant by “screening” calls?

What are some of the advantages of “screening” calls?

And some answers, from page 38 (CLR means combined line and recording)

Under the screening arrangement, CLR operators release the calling party on selected items of traffic to the extent required to maintain the desired recording answer level.

The advantages of the screening method are that it is flexible and can be adjusted to the immediate needs of the situation; it provides for an efficient use of available circuits; it involves only moderate increase in total work time since the majority of calls so released probably could not have been advanced immediately; it is uniform, thus minimizing excessive duplicate calls


From the periodical “Best Detective Stories of the Year” Volume 32 in 1978

The next day at noon Brock was in the bungalow screening calls from the hustlers who had read his ad in the paper 

So we went from a device to keep the heat from a fire place from being too harsh to those sitting near it, to the action that a screen provides - protection or cover, to switchboard operators making the most efficient use of the few circuits they had available, to me not answering the phone if I don’t recognize the number. And that is one heck of a life for a screen. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

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Modern Uses

Call screening has come a long way since the days of CLR operators. Google has a service calls “Google Call Screen” in which you Google Assistant will answer the call for you, talk to the person on the other end, and provide you with a real-time transcript. You can decide if you want to take over the call, or let the assistant do it’s thing. 

RingCentral offers a paid service where businesses can choose from a variety of options to screen your calls. 

Song - For that song about spiders and screening calls? Well that is:

1995 - No Doubt - Spiderwebs off the album Tragic Kingdom

Sorry I'm not home right now

I'm walking into spiderwebs

So leave a message

And I'll call you back

A likely story, but leave a message

And I'll call you back

And it's all your fault

I screen my phone calls

No matter who calls

I gotta scream my phone calls


edIT - Screening Phone Calls off the 2004 album "Crying Over Pros For No Reason"

It’s an instrumental hip-hop song. It’s got a digital/electronic vibe to it. It’s intentionally discordant in places, which makes for a song that is far from the norm.


Here’s a 2006 book from two of my favorite radio hosts…

Car Talk: Doesn’t Anyone Screen These Calls?: Calls About Animals and Cars by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

The guys share some of their favorite calls about the world where cars and animals meet. Luckily, it’s not dog-eat-dog, but sometimes it’s horse-eat-steering-wheel.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi are America’s foremost auto mechanics. So usually people phone in to their radio show with questions about cars—buying them, driving them, keeping them running. But every so often, out of the blue, Click and Clack are also called on to be amateur veterinary psychologists. They’re asked to figure out why a horse has eaten a steering wheel, or why a 100-pound dog insists on riding on the roof of a pickup truck, or how a white rat the size of a two-liter Coke bottle got into a poor young woman’s Chevy. And while they might not know the answer, they always come up with something.

This is a collection of calls about cars, animals, and the mysterious, often hilarious times when they meet. It leads Tom and Ray down a familiar path—of wild speculation, occasional brilliant suggestions, and lots of laughs. This is a must-have for anyone who loves animals, particularly the two that host Car Talk.

*If there is time*

BEfore we wrap up, if you will indulge me one more Bunny Trail, I’d like to share something only tangentially related that I learned while researching this phrase…

This is from a Mental Floss article (written in 2015 and updated in 2020) called 10 Aspects of Old Telephones that Might Confuse Young People, written by Kara Kovalchik


Those “click-click-click” noises you hear when a rotary dial is released and returns to its starting position are called “hook flashes.” They were what told the switching equipment down at the phone company what numbers were being dialed. The disconnect button (called a “switchhook”) on the telephone could also be used to send hook flashes—if you wanted to dial 411 without using the rotary, you would tap the switchhook four times, pause, tap once, pause, then tap once again. Tapping it 10 times was the equivalent of dialing “0,” which is why in old films you’ll often see a character frantically hitting the disconnect and yelling “Operator? Operator!” into the receiver; once they’d hit it 10 times the operator would answer. 

Wrap up...

As I said at the beginning, I had never considered this phrase before. I honestly didn’t realize it was an idiom until Jaxx pointed it out. And then my mind got to work wondering how everything got started. I love seeing words and phrases make a journey from one meaning to another;  seeing the evolution of our language and how we communicate has always been a fascination of mine. And Jaxx helped me capture that sense of wonder with a phrase I didn’t know much about despite using it all the time. 



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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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