I would understand a central phantom. The word-order puzzles me. Does phantom central have a specific meaning? Is central a postpositive adjective there? Thanks in advance :).

And now a madcap humour came upon me. It was plain Bellairs had been communicating with his principal; I knew the number, if not the name. Should I ring up at once? It was more than likely he would return in person to the telephone. Why should not I dash(vocally) into the presence of this mysterious person, and have some fun for my money? I pressed the bell. "Central," said I, "connect again 2241 and 584 B." A phantom central repeated the number; there was a pause, and then "Two two four one," came in a tiny voice into my ear - a voice with the English sing-song - the voice plainly of a gentleman.

(The Wrecker by R. L. Stevenson and L. Osbourne, chapter x)

There is another thing that puzzles me. The text says there is the telephone number 584 B. Were there letter-dials in addition to the number-dial in America in former times?

The Wrecker - Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Your additional question is not about the English language, but I'll address it here. Rotary dials had three numbers assigned to each number on the dial. So, 584 B would be the equivalent of 584-2 (since ABC were assigned to the number 2). But this is inconsequential here, because the narrator is speaking to an operator, not dialing.
    – Juhasz
    Sep 26 at 21:14
  • Thank you very much indeed.
    – philphil
    Sep 26 at 21:41
  • The phantom is the imaginary inner voice of the speaker, repeating the number for no reason other than the drama. He is pretending. Sep 26 at 23:33
  • @Juhasz : I think that "554B" addresses a party line where the number 554 corresponds to the line (shared by multiple users) and the "B" corresponds to a specific ring tone to be set by the operator to inform subscribers who is(are) the target of the call.
    – Graffito
    Sep 26 at 23:56
  • @YosefBaskin I disagree - don't see any indication that this doesn't refer to a real person at central actually repeating the number out loud. The sentence as a whole is describing things that physically occur - central repeats the number, there's a pause, and then someone answers. There's nothing to suggest that the first part of the sentence is imagined rather than actually happening. Phantom doesn't mean "imaginary". Sep 27 at 13:03

2 Answers 2


Here, "central" refers to a telephone switchboard or something like it, essentially a central location where communications are routed from. "Phantom" is used as an adjective to indicate that the person at "central" has phantom-like qualities, alluding to the fact that they are unseen and that contact with them is ephemeral - it's an interesting way of describing brief contact with a disembodied voice.

  • "Accepted" as well. Why ever not can't I accept both the replies - it puzzles me?!?
    – philphil
    Sep 26 at 21:45
  • Yes. This usage still exists in French, where un central téléphonique is what Anglos called a 'telephone exchange' in the days of analogue phones. Un central can also be an electric power station. Sep 26 at 21:51

This is a probably outdated use of the word central.

central noun

1 : a telephone exchange or operator


The cited text is from 1892, at which time phone calls had to be facilitated by human operators. The narrator wishes to place a phone call and to do so, he must ask a switchboard operator, in this case, at the central office, to manually connect his line (2241) to another line (584 B).

To do so, he addresses a request, "connect again 2241 and 584 B," to the switchboard operator, whom he's referring to by the name of their office, "Central."

So, this grammatically very standard. The adjective phantom modifies the noun central. What's the meaning of a phantom switchboard operator? That's left to your interpretation.


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