Why Do Fake Phone Numbers Start With 555?

iStock / elfinima
iStock / elfinima

As soon as an actor in a movie or TV show starts rattling off a phone number, every viewer knows what the first three digits will be: 5-5-5. How did “555” become the convention for fake phone numbers, and are there any real 555 numbers? Let’s dial up some answers.

Why do TV and movies need the fake 555 numbers? Just ask anyone who had the misfortune of having the number 867-5309 how their life changed after Tommy Tutone's 15 minutes of fame. Apparently some tiny fraction of the population—we’re guessing a fraction that largely consists of adolescent boys—thinks it’s hilarious to call any number they see on the screen. To curb these nuisance calls, movies and shows have been using the fake 555 numbers since as far back as the 1950s. (In keeping with the old exchange-naming convention, back then it was “KLondike 5” or “KLamath 5.”)

It’s hard to pin down exactly how 555 became the go-to fake prefix for phone numbers. In the book Easy as Pi: The Countless Ways We Use Numbers Every Day, author Jamie Buchan speculates that the repeated digit may have made the combination memorable, which helped it gain traction. Buchan adds that since no major place names in the United States began with a combination of the letters J, K, and L (the letters assigned to the 5 key on a phone), the KLondike/KLamath prefix wasn’t exactly a coveted commodity.

Since the early 1970s there’s been at least one 555 number callers can dial and get an answer—555-1212 is a standard number that rings directory assistance. The rest of the 555 numbers have largely gained fame as fake numbers in movies and on TV. (The number 555-2368 has risen to particularly rarefied air, possibly because of the “2368” combo’s use in old phone ads. Dialing 555-2368 will get you the Ghostbusters, the hotel room from Memento, Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, and Jaime Sommers from The Bionic Woman, among others.)

Real Fake Numbers

What you may not know, though, is that there are many more “real” 555 phone numbers. Since 1994, 555 numbers have actually been available for personal or business use. That’s when the North American Numbering Plan Administration started taking applications from people and businesses who wanted their own 555 numbers. Theoretically, these numbers would have worked from anywhere in the continent; dialers would be able to dial 555-XXXX and always end up with the same number regardless of area code. The hope was that if you needed, say, a taxi anywhere in the country, you could just remember one number that would always work.

Things didn’t work out quite so smoothly. People and businesses snapped up the 555 numbers —except for 555-0100 through 555-0199, which were held back for fictional use—but they soon learned that owning a phone number isn’t all that useful if you don’t also own a phone company that can connect the number. Phone companies protested that setting up these services would be wildly expensive; in 2003 Verizon told The New York Times that adding the nationwide 555 service to its systems would cost the company $108 million. (Verizon did offer to hook up the 555 numbers for owners, but the same Times story noted that the service usually required a $2,500 set-up fee per area code.)

Skeptics claimed that the phone companies were just dragging their feet so the 555 numbers didn’t sap cash away from 800 numbers. There may be some truth to that theory, but the 555 system still isn’t up and running in any meaningful way. The list of people and entities that own the numbers is a pretty amusing read, though. It’s mostly newspapers, hospitals, random people, and the state of Nevada.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

From September 23 to September 24, customers can get as much as 80 percent off home decor, furniture, WFH essentials, kitchen appliances, and more during the Wayfair's Way Day 2020 sale. Additionally, when you buy a select Samsung appliance during the sale, you'll also get a $200 Wayfair gift card once the product ships. Make sure to see all that the Way Day 2020 sale has to offer. These prices won’t last long, so we've also compiled a list of the best deals for your home below.

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Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?

Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash
Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash

When people visit their local family-owned pumpkin patch around Halloween, they aren’t usually looking for dinner. The majority of the nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins cultivated in the U.S. each year are carved up instead of eaten, making the squash a unique part of the agriculture industry. For people who prefer seasonal recipes to decorations, that may raise a few questions: Are the pumpkins sold for jack-o’-lanterns different from pumpkins sold as food? And are Halloween pumpkins any good to eat?

The pumpkins available at farms and outside supermarkets during October are what most people know, but that’s just one type of pumpkin. Howden pumpkins are the most common decorative pumpkin variety. They’ve been bred specifically for carving into jack-o’-lanterns, with a symmetrical round shape, deep orange color, and sturdy stem that acts as a handle. Shoppers looking for the perfect carving pumpkin have other options as well: the Racer, Magic Wand, Zeus, Hobbit, Gold Rush, and Connecticut field pumpkin varieties are all meant to be displayed on porch steps for Halloween.

Because they’re bred to be decoration first, carving pumpkins don’t taste very good. They have walls that are thin enough to poke a cheap knife through and a texture that’s unappealing compared to the squashes consumers are used to eating. “Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat; however, it's not the best type to use for cooking,” Daria McKelvey, a supervisor for the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells Mental Floss. “Carving pumpkins are grown for their large size, not the flavor. Their flesh can be bland and the fibers are very stringy.”

To get the best-tasting pumpkins possible this autumn, you’re better off avoiding the seasonal supermarket displays. Many pumpkin varieties are bred especially for cooking and eating. These include Sugar Pie, Kabocha, Jack-Be-Little, Ghost Rider, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Baby Pam, and Cinderella pumpkins. You can shop for these varieties by name at local farms or in the produce section of your grocery store. They should be easy to tell apart from the carving pumpkins available for Halloween: Unlike decorative pumpkins, cooking pumpkins are small and dense. This is part of the reason they taste better. McKelvey says. “[Cooking pumpkins] are smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind (meatier), and have less fibers, making them easier to cook with—but not so good for carving.” These pumpkins can be stuffed, blended into soup, or simply roasted.

If you do want to get some culinary use out of your carving pumpkins this Halloween, set aside the seeds when scooping out the guts. Roasted with seasonings and olive oil, seeds (or pepitas) from different pumpkin varieties become a tasty and nutritious snack. Another option is to turn the flesh of your Halloween pumpkin into purée. Adding sugar and spices and baking it into a dessert can do a lot to mask the fruit’s underwhelming flavor and consistency.

Whatever you do, make sure your pumpkin isn’t carved up already when you decide to cook with it. There are many ways to recycle your jack-o’-lanterns, but turning them into pie isn’t one of them. "If one does plan on cooking with a carving pumpkin, it should be intact,” McKelvey says. “Never use one that's been carved into a jack-o'-lantern, otherwise you could be dealing with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.”