The world of telephones was once dominated by desk phones that were made up of a base and a part that you would pick up and hold to your ear/head. That part you hold to your head is what was originally called a handset.
The earliest telephones had rotary dials with the digits arranged in a circular layout that rotated by your finger action. To dial a number, you would place your finger on the digit you wanted and rotate the dial till it stopped, then release it and repeat the same process with each number till you were done. Tedious, I know. Mrs. Mo and I communicated using one like that back when we were dating. Did I hear you call me old? I’m cancelling you…
Anyway, rotary dials later gave way to push button desk telephones (like the blue one in the image above). The push button desk phones were easier to use, of course. You simply push the buttons like you do on your smartphone today.
At some point in the telephone historical timeline, mobile or wireless phones came into existence. They had no cables and communication happen wirelessly through telecom cellular towers. By reason of their mobile nature, they do not have the traditional base of desk telephones. Mobile phones have only one part that combined all the functions of old school desk telephones. Since you hold up a mobile phone to your head during a telephone call, a lot of people just referred to them as handsets too. They were in your hand, after all.
Cellular or Cell Phones
I do not think that people in the United States of America and Canada generally refer to cell phones as “handsets”. You would rather hear them called “cellular” or “cell” phones. This holds for many South American countries as well. Sometimes, the phrase “wireless phone” is used as well.
The phrase, “mobile phone”, is more commonly used in countries like the United Kingdom (UK), much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
In countries like Nigeria, Ghana, as well as in certain Asian countries, among others, quite a number of mobile phone users – perhaps mostly Gen X – still use the term, “handset”. However, you will find a mix of usage with other terms like “mobile phone” and “cell phone” here and there.
Handy, HandyPhones, or Cordless Phones
In China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, as well as in some European countries like Germany and the Netherlands, you will still hear some people call their mobile phones “handyphones”, “handy phones”, or just a “handy”. The phrase “cordless phones” is quite commonly used in Germany.
The word, “handset”, is one of the many valid terminologies used in referring to mobile phones in different places around the world. Being Gen X myself, I do not flinch or wonder when I hear someone say the word. In the early 2000s, it was a common word used for mobile phones when many of us first got introduced to them. It is doubtful that any Gen Y or Z individuals will be caught dead referring to a smartphone as a handset. They were born and grew up in the age of iPhones and Android smartphones, and would probably think that the word “handset” is funny.
The world is quite a diverse place, and there is a colourful mix of terminologies to enjoy, if you pay attention.
Some of these terms are fading or dying out faster than others. But, if you hear anyone call their smartphones, a “handset”, calm down and smile; they are not coo coo or anything of the sort. They just likely grew up in a different dispensation from you.
What other words or phrases have you heard mobile phones called around you?
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Founder of MobilityArena. Yomi’s journey in mobile started in 2001. Besides obsessing over mobile phones, he also started creating WAP sites (early mobile-friendly websites created with WML). He began writing about phones in 2004 and has been at it since then. He has owned over 200 devices, from Symbian, Palm, PocketPC/Windows Mobile, BlackBerry/BB10, webOS, Windows Phone, Firefox, Ubuntu Touch, to Android, iOS, and KaiOS operating systems.