Anatol Stefanowitsch in Bremer Sprachblog discusses the question Woher kommt das Handy?: where does the German word Handy ‘mobile telephone, cell(ular) phone’ come from? After rejecting various theories (such as that it’s short for the 1940s term handie-talkie), the floor is thrown open to suggestions, and Detlef Guertler of Wortistik linked to a post there proving to Anatol’s satisfaction that it comes from a term for ‘hand-held microphone’ used in the CB radio community. If you’re interested in etymology and read German, I recommend both posts; it’s wonderful to see these things hashed out intelligently, with a decent regard for evidence and probability. (And once again I express my regret that Language Log doesn’t have comments…)


  1. Yeah, Incubus came up here in 2002. I thought we all had it on DVD by now.

  2. I don’t know the origin of the term, but I do know that many Germans think the word handy is English for cellphone.

  3. If any of you North Americans, Brits or Australians have ever come across the word handy as part of a product name for a specific mobile phone I would be grateful if you could let me know. While I do believe that CB radios are somehow involved in the origin of the word, I think that product names must have been crucial in helping it gain widespread usage. I know that there were products in the German market fairly early on that incorporated the word handy, but I’d be interested to know whether this is also true of English-speaking markets.

  4. Terry Collmann says

    What I find interesting is that, despite yuppies (there’s a word you don’t see much any more) being the ‘early adopters’ of mobile phone technology in the UK, and yuppies in the UK taking much of their style from Wall Street, the device has different names depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re calling from: the BritEng name for the device seems to be exclusively ‘mobile phone’, while AmEng usage appears to be (unless I’m in error) almost exclusively ‘cellphone’.
    Is this because the ‘cell’ aspect of the technology was more important in the US, where in large parts of the country, in the early days of the devices, you might not be inside the ‘cell’ covered by a radio mast, and therefore could not make calls, unlike with CB radio, whereas in the UK cell coverage was almost universal practically from the beginning, and therefore nobody had to worry about whether they were inside a cell and could concentrate on the ‘mobile’ aspect? Or was it, as the OED entry on ‘cellphone’ hints, because ‘Cellphone’ (capitalised) was an early trademark, which became a generic?
    The OED entries on the two terms show ‘mobile phone’ as in use in the US earlier than ‘cellphone’ by nearly 20 years …

  5. This is probably not relevant to the origins of the German term, but the Chinese word for cell phone is shouji, which literally means “hand machine”.

  6. caffeind says

    “Cellular” technology was supposed to seamlessly hand your connection off from one base station to another, and have a large number of base stations.
    I’d guess that US carriers advertised with the word “cellular” first, maybe because they thought it sounded new, and established it in the vernacular. But, I don’t know.
    Shouji is presumably an abbreviation of a translation of “handset”.

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