I have noted elsewhere that the OISE soundscape is characterised in part by the ambulances ploughing up and down the Hills Road, summoned from Addenbrooke’s hosipital, a couple of miles down the road, by the 999 emergency call.
999 has been the emergency dialling code in the whole of Britain since just after that war. It was first introduced in 1937 following an incident where five people were killed in a house fire in London; their neighbour had tried to telephone for emergency assistance, but had been held in a queue by the operator. He wrote to the Times newspaper, and a government enquiry was launched.
Following the debate in the House of Commons in which the legislation for the number was passed, an editorial in The Times noted approvingly that, being half as many again as the number of the Beast (666) it was appropriate for summoning assistance for all sorts of apocalyptic happenings.
Joe Moran, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University who writes about the structure of everyday life, notes on his blog that the history and retention of 999 is an example of path dependence.
Path dependence is a concept used by social scientists, economists and historians to analyse the constraints placed upon present action by past choices and actions – a sort of conceptual mixed conditional. In the case of 999, the number was chosen for the ease with which telephone boxes with rotational dials could be adapted to allow free calls (0 was already in use as a free number used to call the operator). This is of course no longer the case; mobile phones with digital keypads would logically suggest an emergency number with different digits (911, 112 etc.) in order to prevent phantom rings – accidental dialling by toddlers or phones kept in pockets. However, once the number was chosen there is a strong inertial logic to retaining it.
While the development of languages is also path dependent (again, there is a strong inertia towards retaining generally accepted forms, and the possibilities for new forms are limited by what already exists), happily, learning them is not. Habit formation might have an inertia of its own, but the English language itself is a very forgiving structural field. Precision is a relative and non-sequential concept. Islands of clarity can be linked by oceans of close-enough.
With one or two exceptions. Numbers, for instance. I do not know why numbers, the expression of numbers, the saying of long numbers, seems to be a secondary concern for so many students of languages, but it is. And this is one area where close enough is rarely sufficient. Try dialling 888 and see what you get.