Why Do Toll-Free Numbers Start With 800?

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Businesses want your call, and a good way for them to get it is to make that call free. Back in the days of slow-returning rotary phones, long before the advent of “touch-tone,” engineers at Bell Labs were thinking hard about future call convenience. The system they devised—which includes 800 numbers—still stands today in this digital age of Skype, VoIP, and cell phones.

"COLLECT" AND "ZENITH" CALLING

Before toll-free numbers, the only way to call free of charge was to call collect. This reversed the charges so that the receiving party paid for the call, not the person placing it. Prior to toll-free numbers, some companies allowed collect calls from customers, but it was a cumbersome way to attract business because the call had to go through the operator.

In the 1950s, a “Zenith number” published and advertised by some companies got you straight through to the operator, who would then look up a big paper directory and place the equivalent of a collect call manually to the receiving number at the relevant area code. This was toll-free for the customer, but certainly far from hassle-free.

NORTH AMERICAN NUMBERING PLAN (NANP)

Developed by Bell and AT&T in the 1940s, the NANP divided North America into 86 numbering areas defined by three-digit codes, beginning with area code 201 (New Jersey) and ending with area code 916 (far-northern California). They cleverly arranged the NANP so that the largest population areas were the quickest to dial on a rotary phone. Utah was assigned 801, but none of the regular area codes ended in a 0, as the astute Bell engineers had kept those ranges aside for special purposes.

Later, these reserved “non-geographic number” ranges—including the magic 800—would come into their own. Why 800, specifically? Probably because the number 8 corresponded with the letter T, for “Toll-free,” on a standard phone dial.

INWATS AND AUTOMATED COLLECT CALLING

In the early 1960s, Ken Looloian, AT&T’s head of planning, had a clever idea to cut costs by using electronic switching. In 1967, AT&T rolled out its long-distance “Inward Wide Area Telephone Service” (InWATS) nationwide. With InWATS, businesses and organizations could “subscribe” (for an expensive, fixed-rate line fee) and receive a number from the toll-free range.

Because of the high cost—ensured by AT&T’s initial monopoly on the service—only large call volume outfits, such as Sheraton and National Data Corp., went for it at first. And it was still a primitive setup by today’s standards. Toll-free numbers were tied to specific geographic areas, forcing serious “subscribers” to pay for up to 20 numbers if they wanted to cover the entire U.S.

Nevertheless, the InWATS service meant that customers could at last direct-dial companies via 800 numbers. Thanks to the automated switching equipment, what was effectively a collect call paid for by the subscriber no longer required operator assistance. This was great news for customers, but probably not so peachy for those polite, trusty, jack-plugging operators.

ENTER THE OTHER MR. 800

The costly, clumsy system was slow to catch on until, in the mid-'70s, AT&T engineer Roy Weber made a big breakthrough in toll-free calling technology. Though computer-controlled digital switching was still in its infancy, Weber’s bold concept (which his supervisor thought was a “dumb idea”) was to point non-geographic numbers at database files. In this way, a number could act as an index code to pull up a specific file, which could then instruct the switchgear to route the call correctly to anywhere. (Unfortunately for Mr. Weber’s pocketbook, AT&T Bell Labs took on the patent rights to all their employees’ inventions there.)

THE 800 AND VANITY NUMBER BOOM

In the early 1980s, using Weber’s insight, AT&T centralized its databases. This was the spark that lit the 800 boom, as it meant that companies could now have a single, nationwide 800 number instead of multiple, state-specific ones. The 800 number became a mark of prestige for companies, and competitive pressures ensured that the service flourished.

It wasn’t long before subscribers got imaginative with their toll-free numbers, choosing catchy “phoneword” combinations, like 800-FLOWERS or 800-COOKIES. These “vanity number” combinations were easier for customers to remember than were long strings of digits. And thanks to touch-tone phones, they were now quick to dial, no matter where they would have landed on the dial of an old rotary phone.

In 1993, 800 numbers became truly portable, no longer tied to a particular carrier. This gave subscribers a much greater choice of memorable and vanity numbers. Due to huge demand, new U.S. toll-free prefixes now include 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844, as well as the original 800.

A WORLD OF 800

Gradually, countries the world over adopted the convention of using an 800 prefix to designate toll-free numbers. An early pioneer of reverse-charge calling and automatic switching, the UK used 0800 for its “Linkline” (later, “freephone”) service which began in 1985 through British Telecom.

In order to free up the greatly prized 0800, BT transferred it across from its previous incarnation as the area code for the remote village of Tongue in the far north of Scotland. Kind of appropriate, in a strange sort of way.

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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Grocery Stores vs. Supermarkets: What’s the Difference?

gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images
gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

These days, people across the country are constantly engaging in regional term debates like soda versus pop and fireflies versus lightning bugs. Since these inconsistencies are so common, you might have thought the only difference between a grocery store and a supermarket was whether the person who mentioned one was from Ohio or Texas. In reality, there are distinctions between the stores themselves.

To start, grocery stores have been around for much longer than supermarkets. Back when every town had a bakery, a butcher shop, a greengrocery, and more, the grocery store offered townspeople an efficient shopping experience with myriad food products in one place. John Stranger, vice president group supervisor of the food-related creative agency EvansHardy+Young, explained to Reader’s Digest that the grocer would usually collect the goods for the patron, too. This process might sound familiar if you’ve watched old films or television shows, in which characters often just hand over their shopping lists to the person behind the counter. While our grocery store runs may not be quite so personal today, the contents of grocery stores remain relatively similar: Food, drinks, and some household products.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have taken the idea of a one-stop shop to another level, carrying a much more expansive array of foodstuffs as well as home goods, clothing, baby products, and even appliances. This is where it gets a little tricky—because supermarkets carry many of the same products as superstores, the next biggest fish in the food store chain, which are also sometimes referred to as hypermarkets.

According to The Houston Chronicle, supermarkets and superstores both order inventory in bulk and usually belong to large chains, whereas grocery stores order products on an as-needed basis and are often independently owned. Superstores, however, are significantly larger than either grocery stores or supermarkets, and they typically look more like warehouses. It’s not an exact science, and some people might have conflicting opinions about how to categorize specific stores. For example, Walmart has a line of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, which its website describes as “smaller-footprint option[s] for communities in need of a pharmacy, affordable groceries, and merchandise.” They’re not independently owned, but they do sound like grocery stores, especially compared to Walmart’s everything-under-the-sun superstore model.

Knowing the correct store terms might not always matter in casual conversation, but it could affect your credit card rewards earnings. American Express, for example, offers additional rewards on supermarket purchases, and it has a specific list of stores that qualify as supermarkets, including Gristedes, Shoprite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods. Target and Walmart, on the other hand, are both considered superstores, so you won’t earn bonuses on those purchases.

And, since grocery shopping at any type of store can sometimes seem like a competitive sport, here’s the ideal time to go.

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