Technologies tend to be global, both by nature and by name. Say “television”, “computer” or “internet” anywhere and chances are you will be understood. But hand-held phones? For this ubiquitous technology, mankind suffers from a Tower of Babel syndrome. Under millions of Christmas trees North and South Americans have been unwrapping cell phones or celulares. Yet to Britons and Spaniards they are mobiles or móviles. Germans and Finns refer to them as Handys and kännykät, respectively, because they fit in your hand. The Chinese, too, make calls on a sho ji, or “hand machine”. And in Japan the term of art is keitai, which roughly means “something you can carry with you”.
This disjunction is revealing for an object that, in the space of a decade, has become as essential to human functioning as a pair of shoes. Mobile phones do not share a single global moniker because the origins of their names are deeply cultural. “Cellular” refers to how modern wireless networks are built, pointing to a technological worldview in America. “Mobile” emphasises that the device is untethered, which fits the roaming, once-imperial British style. Handy highlights the importance of functionality, much appreciated in Germany. But are such differences more than cosmetic? And will they persist or give way to a global mobile culture?
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