6

I've often come across two terms that seem to refer to the same device but are used differently: "cellphone" and "mobile phone." I'm curious about the differences in the usage of these terms in English. Are they completely interchangeable, or do they have specific contexts where one is preferred over the other?

Are there regional differences in the usage of these terms? For instance, is one term more common in American English compared to British English?

9
  • 3
    In British English, mobile phone is almost completely obsolete. It is just phone. Especially since landlines are no longer available.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 17 at 11:41
  • 8
    @Chenmunka: "Mobile phone" is very much still alive, though its usage is much reduced since "phone" tends to mean "mobile phone". (And landlines are still very much available - existing ones are still there and still work, and you can order new ones, but those are delivered over a broadband link rather than directly over copper.)
    – psmears
    Commented Jan 17 at 12:35
  • 4
    Yes it is still alive but obsolescent. Landlines are no longer available and many have been recovered. Their abolition has been delayed as many alarm systems cannot work (yet) with the SIP phones that are being supplied in place of landlines. The original deadline for decommissioning all landlines was December 2023, it is now December 2025.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 17 at 12:39
  • 2
    @Chenmunka The traditional PSTN service will be discontinued in the UK in December 2025, but landlines will continue to exist for the foreseeable future — simply implemented over IP instead.  In many cases, the only visible change will be that the domestic phone plugs into an adapter in a router instead of a hard-wired socket on the wall.
    – gidds
    Commented Jan 17 at 14:18
  • 5
    I would say the phrase "mobile phone" is becoming obsolete; it seems to me that people just say "mobile", as in "they're on their mobile". Commented Jan 17 at 15:45

3 Answers 3

21

"Cellphone" is almost exclusively American. It would be understood in the UK, but "mobile phone" is more common. More common than either is just "mobile" or "phone". There is no need now to use a more specific word, as "phone" means "mobile phone" or "cellphone" in nearly all contexts.

Note that while "phone" is now the preferred term, "telephone" is still mostly reserved for the fixed device with a wired connection (ie the "landline")

17
  • 8
    There was an episode of Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) in which a clue is that one of the suspects uses the term "cellphone", indicating that he has spent time in the USA.
    – James K
    Commented Jan 16 at 18:22
  • 2
    @JamesK and also an episode of Friends where a character who spent time in the UK saying "mobile" with an attempted British accent irks Phoebe
    – muru
    Commented Jan 17 at 8:59
  • 3
    @MarkMorganLloyd "Handy" is also an American term but it means something... very different.
    – nasch
    Commented Jan 17 at 16:09
  • 2
    @A.R. The difference is that, while Handy is used in German, it is a pseudo-Anglicism: it was created in English and borrowed wholesale from English into German (and remains a transparently English word there), but then had a different meaning applied to it. Móvil and farsími, conversely, are not English words at all (though móvil is of course the Spanish equivalent of mobile), and Spanish/Icelandic speakers would not be expected to think that English might use either term. Commented Jan 18 at 0:27
  • 2
    I think this comment thread is moving away from the point. Perhaps this would be better taken to chat (or deleted entirely)
    – James K
    Commented Jan 18 at 22:09
4

Are there regional differences in the usage of these terms?

Yes, very much so. “Mobile phone” is, or was, standard in Australian English. “Cellphone” is the usual term in New Zealand, though I believe “mobile phone” has always been a perfectly well understood alternative there.

I’m Australian; my wife is from New Zealand. It amused and puzzled me that New Zealand English had adopted what I considered an Americanism. As time passed, I saw “cellphone” gain ground in Australia too, which I pinned on the dominance of American media. More recently, every other term seems to have been eclipsed in popularity by the simple “phone”.

But if someone had to draw a distinction between a landline and a whiz-bang pocket gadget, I would still consider “mobile phone” to be the more typical, unremarkable Australian English term.


A final thought: one thing that seems influential in mobiles becoming the normal meaning of “phone” is the use of possessives. A phone that belongs to an individual—my phone, your phone, Bruce’s phone—is almost invariably a mobile phone. Landlines are more likely to be identified by location (“the office phone”), or perhaps by belonging to a group or organisation (if I say of my family that “our phone isn’t working”, I probably mean a landline). But note that “my work phone” is going to be a mobile phone provided by my employer for work purposes; it “belongs” to me in that I possess it and use it, regardless of the legal ownership. (See also: kids saying “my phone”, when the device legally belongs to a responsible adult!)

In fact the notion of a mobile phone belonging to the person who carries it is so strong that I daresay an unqualified “the phone” is, on balance, more likely to mean a landline, despite the trend of “phones” in general being mobiles!

2

‘Cellphone’ is largely American. It likely originated to specifically differentiate from pre-cellular systems which are also demonstrably ‘mobile’ phones but are not cellular phones and were established technology in some parts of the US prior to the introduction of cellular phone services (the original MTS system pioneered by Motorola and Bell predates cellular systems by at least 30 years). It may have also stuck because of the development of satelite phones, which originated around the same time as the earliest cellular phone service. There is also some limited usage of ‘cell’ in this context in some parts of the US, though mostly as part of other phrases (for example ‘cell number’ to refer to someone’s cellular mobile phone number).

Outside of the US, the term ‘mobile phone’ is historically more common, in many cases to the exclusion of the term ‘cellphone’. Outside of the US and UK, this makes a lot of sense given that cellular service was the first mobile phone service that any other English-speaking countries saw in active usage (and even in the UK it’s debatable, they only had satellite phone service for a year, so there was no real need to differentiate from pre-cellular systems. In some cases, especially in the UK, ‘mobile’ has come to be more common than ‘mobile phone’.

However, in almost all cases, the term ‘phone’ is becoming far more common than either usage, especially when prefixed by a possessive (for example ‘my phone’), because a cellular phone (or more often a smartphone designed to run on cellular networks) is the primary phone most people interact with these days.

4
  • 1
    Alternatives to cellular networks, besides satellite mentioned in the answer: WiFi calling (needs a WiFi access point and internet connection), and cordless phones (need a local radio base station). The latter are not very mobile, since they can't handoff to a different network.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jan 17 at 22:43
  • 1
    @BenVoigt More relevant to the evolution of the term would be other non-celular mobile radiotelephone systems, which include MTS, IMTS, and RCC in the US (and later Canada), System 1 in the UK, A-Netz and B-Netz in West Germany, Televerket in Norway, and ARP in Finnland. IMTS and RCC in particular were big in the US, so we had the concept of a ‘mobile’ phone pretty well entrenched by the time cellular technology became available. AFAIK, all commercial pre-cellular systems ceased operating by the time GSM (2G cellular) hardware had become readily available worldwide. Commented Jan 17 at 23:15
  • I was naming non-obsolete technologies, since your answer had already explained the role of obsolete technologies in the etymology.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jan 18 at 15:55
  • @BenVoigt My point is more that non-obsolete tech has not really done much, at least from my perspective, to further reinforce things. Satellite phones are just called satellite phones or sat-phones here, Wi-Fi calling is almost never used without a smartphone/cellphone and is seen as no ‘different’ from regular cellular usage by most people (which is funny, because that’s technically correct for everything above the basic network level), and cordless phones are never really thought of as ‘mobile’, so none of them really have much influence on this. Commented Jan 18 at 16:01

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .