Chapter Six : Telephone

WARNING! Most of the information presented in this book is simply not true and, in fact, is a complete pack of lies. It is therefore highly recommended that you do not use any of its contents as part of a book report, a school project or as an answer to a question in a surprise test. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED!


Most games, it is generally agreed, are played in order to have some shared experience of fun or joy. Telephone is a game that promises fun, but in reality only leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding and on rare occasions, a full-on war between nations. So yeah, there’s that.

Standard Rules of Telephone

1. Using as many players as possible, everyone should either sit in a circle or stand in a long line, or at the very least, squat along the edge of an extremely tall building (see illust. 5a).

(Illust. 5a – This photo, from 1932, captures a moment just before a game of Telephone was about to be played at Jimmy Beltch’s birthday party [Jimmy is second from the left]. This was before the days of Chucky Cheese, and finding a place to hold a birthday party was difficult. People took what they could get.)

2. One person then thinks up a phrase and whispers it as quietly as possible into the ear of the person next to them. The phrase should be long and interesting, such as for example: “I currently have a very bad cold and should not be breathing directly into your ear.” (See list 5b)

(List 5b – in ranking #2, the phrase finishes with “six week” and not “six weeks”. This is in no way an error by the publisher due to laziness to correct it. It really is meant to say “six week”. Weird, huh?

3. The person who has been whispered to, then whispers the same phrase into the ear of the person on their other side. If what was originally said was not heard correctly or remembered correctly, then the phrase will not be completely the same.

4. This continues from person to person with the expectation that the phrase will become more and more different. The scientific term for this is “Telephone Phrase Mutation”. (see chart 5c)

(Chart 5c – This chart was first published in a medical textbook in the chapter entitled: How Chewing Gum Can Accidently Get Stuck in Ears)

5. The last player to be whispered to announces to everyone what they heard. It is then matched against the first player’s phrase. Then all the players have a merry laugh at our pathetic human ability to hear. Dogs, and other creatures with much better hearing, are often seen to roll their eyes at this point.

NOTE: There is no actual winner in the game of Telephone, but if you find yourself at a friend’s birthday party being the only person who knows how the game is played, then you could lead the group in a game, declare yourself the “winner” and take all of your friend’s presents according to the “rules of Telephone”, and no one would be the wiser.

The Origins of Telephone

Game historians have not reached a consensus on Telephone’s birth, but the vast majority of them stand in either of the two camps described below.

1. Out of the Ashes of Catastrophe

Most everyone remembers the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It devastated ten square kilometers of the city. But few will recall the So-So Chicago Fire of 1872 which destroyed far less on account of there not being much left to burn after the first one.

As was common practice in those days, citizens formed a bucket brigade to fight fires (See illust. 5d). This meant that people would create a human chain, linking the fire to a water source and passing filled buckets up the line until they could be tossed onto the flames.

(Illust. 5d In the days before fire departments were established in towns and cities, the volunteer firefighters often chose to dress as cowboys for reasons unknown. But to protect themselves from excess water in the battle against a blaze, they would wear a raincoat called a City Slicker. This pun was brought to you by CBC Radio)

However, during this emergency, the last person in line, Chip Alvinmonk, proved to be far less intelligent than was required. Not only did he toss the water from the buckets onto the fire, he tossed the buckets as well. A bucket shortage quickly developed. Hoping to save the situation, Alvin came up with an ingenious idea. He said to the person next to him, “Call the Fire Department. Pass it on.” The next person did so. Sadly, that person proved to be equally lacking in brain power. What he said was, “Don’t call me late for dinner. Pass it on”. It turned out that everyone in that line was just as incompetent (see Illust. 5e), which is ultimately why the Chicago School for Chronic Dufuses burned to the ground. But on the upside, Alvin invented the game of Telephone.

(Illust. 5e A depiction of the burning of the Chicago School for Chronic Dufuses. Other buildings that burned down on that unfortunate day: The Chicago Candle, Blowtorch and Fireworks Factory, The Chicago Indoor Campfire Club, and the building directly beneath Chicago’s Giant Magnifying Glass sculpture.)

2. Squabbling Siblings

According to this theory, the game of Telephone predates the invention of the actual telephone. Like the game itself, the names comes from a mishearing between two brothers (See illust. 5f ), one of whom was the inventor, Isaac Dyletone.

(Illust. 5f The Dyletone brothers, circa 1869. Isaac stands in the middle, Ishmael to the left, and Ephron to the right, although you can’t see him due to his shyness. The fourth triplet is standing just in front of Isaac although agriculturists insist it is not a person but a farm implement.)

Isaac was one of four triplets. Together with Ishmael and Ephron, he farmed a parcel of land along the coastal regions of Saskatchewan. As a way to amuse themselves during the long, dark winter nights, Isaac thought up games to play. There is a transcript of a conversation that captured the moment Telephone was created (see illust. 5g). We have this document because the brothers were under investigation at the time. They communicated using two tin cans that were connected by string. Detectives had it wiretapped.

(Illust. 5g – During the years 1870-73, a number of unexplained accidents occurred at the Kellogg Frosted Flakes factory as well as Kashi, Weetabix and Bob’s Red Mill. Ishmael Dyletone became a suspect when law enforcement officers believed that a cereal killer was on the loose. This pun is also brought to you by CBC Radio.)


In July of 1914, an inadvertent game of Telephone at the United Nations Security Council created an International crisis between the countries of Slushland and West Dreary (see illust 5h).

(Illust. 5h – A few front pages from leading American newspapers at the time. The majority of media outlets were criticized for constantly confusing Greenland or Iceland for Slushland, and referring to West Dreary as East Dreary, which as we all know, does not exist.)

It’s possible that if the U.N. interpreters had not been on lunch break, this massive failure in diplomacy may not of happened, and these two noble countries would still be on good terms. What follows (see Illust. 5j ), is a minute by minute account of how a friendly bit of advice from one ambassador given to a visiting president ended up becoming an unforgiving insult that led to war and regional tension to this day.

(Illust. 5j Fun fact: the design of the Security Council Chamber is meant to resemble a revolving restaurant. The circular table turns counter-clockwise, one full turn every sixty minutes. However, there was an occasion, due to a malfunction, that it spun seven times in twelve seconds. As a precaution, the walls are now padded with soft foam.)

In the next chapter, we’ll look at the infamous, bloody history behind Duck, Duck, Goose.

Quiz Questions

  • How many lies or misinformation were you able to spot in this chapter?
  • What were some of the ways you figured out that they were not true?
  • Were there any bits that were true or that maybe sounded believable?
  • You do know what a telephone is, right?

Tips for Truth-seekers

There are dependable news sources that are especially focussed for young readers. You may not be currently interested in reading established newspapers or journals, but it doesn’t hurt to get in the habit of engaging in dependable, trustworthy sources of information. In this way, you may develop an instinct for knowing when a news item you come across “doesn’t smell right”.

Here are some examples:

First News is a newspaper with both print and online editions every Friday. It is produced in the U.K and has over two million readers. In their self-description, they say, “With everything we do here at First News, our aim is to open up children’s eyes to the world.  We aim to ensure they understand the issues facing them and the news shaping the world they live in. We want all children to be informed, to have a voice and be heard.”

The Week Junior is also from U.K. It describes itself as “… an award-winning current affairs magazine for children aged 8–14. Filled with fascinating news and engaging information, it feeds curious young minds and helps children make sense of the world.”

There is National Geographic Kids, a good source of information in science, geography and culture. It is perhaps the magazine most read by kids in the world.

If there are readers who can suggest other news sources, let me know and I can post them here.

Chapter Seven: Duck, Duck, Goose

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