"Nine-eleven," or "911" I probably don't have to tell you what this means.

Anybody old enough to use a telephone should know that this is the number to call in case of emergency. It's a catchy little number, easy to remember and easy to dial.Easy, that is, unless you get flustered when, in an emergency, you suddenly can't find the number "11" anywhere on your telephone.

Seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it? Yes, but I suppose it would be possible to make such a mistake if you were shocked or overstressed. And this possibility has generated an urban legend of sorts. I have heard and read this scenario several times from various sources:

A married couple with several young children had made every preparation for an emergency. They had posted the number 911 next to the telephone and mapped out the safest ways of escape from the house. They had even practiced fire drills with the children, so everyone would know exactly what to do in case of a fire.

One sad day, this family's house actually did catch fire. Everyone followed procedures exactly, and got safely out of the house except for Mom. For Mom was the family member delegated to dial 911, and in the heat of the moment, so to speak, she couldn't find "11" on the phone so she died in the fire.

Skeptic that I am, I wonder: Why didn't the woman just give up and dial "0" for the operator?

But some people seem to take the matter much more seriously. A paremedics' periodical called The Journal of Emergency Medical Services, for instance, recently brought to light "documented instances where failure to hyphenate the digits 9-1-1 has caused confusion and delays in the summoning of emergency services."

The problem, the journal suggested, stemmed from "the public and the news media referring to the number as 9-11."

And in a recent news story about wrong numbers flooding a big-city sheriff's office, a dispatcher diagnosed the problem thus: "People don't know how to dial . . . like people who dial the operator rather than 911 because they can't find an 11 on the phone."

More often, though, the 9-11 dilemma is just a joke. Since I'm Norwegian, I'll tell this one on my own people:

"Did you hear they had to get rid of 911 in Oslo?"


"Because the Norwegians couldn't find 11 on the telephone!"

I've heard this joke told about lots of different ethnic groups, of course. And once I did actually hear it told about Norwegians.

But when I told it to my parents, who were born in Norway, they were quite sure that the joke was never told on the Norwegians though possibly on the Swedes.

I've also got a clipping on file in which a California mayor told the joke on himself, as it were. The 911 emergency phone system would never work, the mayor was quoted as saying, because there is no "11" on a phone dial.

The mayor immediately retracted his statement, saying, "It was just a joke." The clipping explained that he had already been embarrassed by several such jokes hung on him by the citizenry of his city.

The roots of this gag go back more than four decades, before there was a 911 emergency number, and probably further.

In a folklore collection published in 1943, for instance, I found a "moron joke" in which the "little moron" is asked if his phone number is "one-one-one-one." "No," he answers, "it's eleven-eleven."

Nowadays, however, some people seem to feel that this whole 9-11 business is no laughing matter. They will campaign actively for the phone companies to change the number, or at least to spell it out "nine-one-one" or "9-1-1" for the sake of perfect clarity.

Then, I wonder, will flustered callers search their dials for a dash?