Don't touch that dial!

If there are no dials left, why are so many people "dialing back"? Bill Gates, for instance, will be disengaging further from Microsoft and spending more of his time with his charitable activities – a process described as "dialing back."

Similarly, The Kansas City Star reported the other day on a consultant who would be "dialing back" her other activities after having landed a juicy six-figure contract at the stadium where the Chiefs and the Royals play.

The phrase is still distinctive enough that when I went searching the other day, Google politely inquired whether I perhaps really meant to look for "calling back." But come on, 27,000 hits isn't chopped liver.

Friends with ties to Detroit, the Motor City, connect "dialing back" to the adjustments one makes to the controls on a production line in a factory.

Never mind that those "dials" have largely been replaced by digital readouts. Dialing back the speed of a conveyor belt could be a good metaphor for Mr. Gates's adjustment to his daily agenda.

Sometimes "dialing back" happens quasi-literally. A Denver Post reporter wrote recently of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "dialing back the volume" after she had had to raise her voice to be heard over a raucous crowd.

Elsewhere in the political realm, and in corporate life as well, the thing that gets "dialed back" is often expectations. I can imagine some school of communications offering a hot new master's degree in "expectations management."

Shortly after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, in April 2003, Newsweek reporter Rod Nordland used the phrase "dialing back expectations" to refer to the Bush administration's goal at a public meeting of military officials and Iraqi politicians on the ground in Baghdad.

In retrospect, it would seem to have been a smart tactic.

A year and a half later, The Washington Post reported that the administration was "dialing back expectations" that the federal tax code would be scrapped in favor of a flat tax.

Before anyone did any dialing, the dial did its job without any help.

"Dial" is traced, although not with certainty, to the Latin word for day. The idea is that a sundial traced the daily circuit of the sun, and the concept was expanded to include not only the dials of mechanical clocks but also all clocklike disks on which information is displayed, as on a barometer or a fuel-tank gauge.

There also seems to have been a concept of the moon dial, one of the most notable examples of which is at Queens College of Cambridge University in England.

It's tempting to see "dialing back" as connected to the dial telephone, now growing quainter by the minute. The telephonic dial is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary thus: "a circular plate marked with letters, numbers, etc., above which is a disc that can be rotated by means of finger-holes to establish a connection with another telephone."

This usage goes back to 1879. But it apparently took a while for the concept to catch on; OED also quotes an English magazine explaining in 1921 (more than 40 years later) the fine points of telephony: "In order to dial a number, say 7, the finger is put in the hole above 7, and the dial is rotated to the stop and let go."

But the original dial you were told not to touch – not to tune to another station, that is – was on a radio. "Don't touch that dial" was the opening to the old Blondie and Dagwood show.

The Colbert Report has adopted the catchphrase and updated it for a newer medium: "Don't touch that dial. And, if your TV has a dial, go buy a new one." Stephen Colbert himself, never shy about sharing his views, is known for getting all cranked up, but never dialing back.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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