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March 14, 2004



There's a sense in which 'It's Jack Nicholson' is a true answer to 'Who's calling?', though not to 'Who's speaking?' and arguably not 'Who is this?'. It's Jack Nicholson causing the call, and who will be making the call if the initiation by an assistant is successful.

If it was the familiar voice of the local operator (going back a few decades for setting), it would be reasonable to say 'I've got Jack Nicholson for you' or indeed 'It's Jack Nicholson'. The assistant is speaking _in loco operatoris_, and perhaps in that milieu assistants are recognizably different from stars: by voice timbre, confidence, menial duty of initiating calls, etc.

The certain leeway for voices is also illustrated, I think, in pre-set answering machine voices. Laura could have an anonymous female voice say 'This is Laura, I'm not here right now', but couldn't have the anonymous male voice say it. (People in my class disagreed when I brought this up.) I don't know how these machines work but I gather you can get impersonator messages: Woody Allen or Madonna, say. Then you couldn't have the voice of a recognizably different person saying they were you, only that they were your phone.

Semantic Compositions

The operator context certainly makes sense, but it's not what most of us expect anymore, at least not by phone. However, since you mention it, it's fair to note that MS Outlook (and possibly other e-mail software; it's the only one I know of that does this, though) does make provision for operator-style discourse.

Every now and then, I receive e-mail from managers at my company which shows up with the "From:" field containing their name. However, opening the e-mail reveals a more extended "Sent on behalf of ("from" person) by (usually a secretary)". So the speech act where one person represents themself as actually being someone else when they're only actually conveying a message for them hasn't gone away. I didn't think of that when I wrote this, but it's another example of how one might truthfully say, "This is X", even though the speaker is in fact Y.


Imagining that the cellphone was in the hands of someone who could then transfer it to Chris Rock, how does the ritual proceed after JN's assistant says "this is Jack Nicholson" CR's assistant says "one moment please." Does the real CR speak to the JN stand-in? Does the CR stand-in speak to the real JN, or are the phones handed off with choreographed simultaneity? Is the procedure based on the initiator of the call, or a known celebrity order of precedence?

Ah it's too confusing. "Take a message."


Having handled cell phone calls to celebrities, I can tell you that often the celeb hands what is appearently a personal phone to a PA during working hours. PAs are at beck and call like lap dogs, so it's no big trick to hand a phone to the celeb. And let's not forget forwarding. Any number of lines might be sent to a particular phone.

Also, in this story, one call was early Sunday morning. That's a personal call in anything except medicine.

"This is Jack Nicholson calling" is not a normal thing to say. I'd guess the minion was tired or distracted.

Henry IX

This entry reminds me of an anecdote about Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon, 1969 - 1972.

Laird's secretary answered the telephone, and told him it was the White House calling. Laird answered, "Who is it? I don't talk to houses."

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