Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Pranks and Cranks

Posted by Neal on June 11, 2008

Doug, Adam, and I went to the science and technology museum in downtown Columbus earlier this week, and Adam wanted to go through the Progress exhibit again. The first part of the exhibit is a mock streetscape from 1898, with storefronts for an inn, a pharmacy, a hardware store, and other businesses. Some you can walk into, such as the telegraph office (where you can send a message in Morse code) or the livery. One that Adam and Doug like is the telephone office, where you can pretend to be an operator at the switchboard, and hear funny recordings of people who answer their phones when you connect them. While they were doing that, I read the bulletins on the wall. One of them announced that the phone company would no longer be hiring men to be operators; henceforth, it would only be single women between the ages of 18 and 26. In the announcement was an apology for some mischief caused by some of the male operators’ “prank calls”.

Prank calls immediately struck me as an anachronism for 1898. When I was a kid, my mom used the term crank call, and I only started hearing prank call when I was at least a teenager. Truthfully, I didn’t really like the term crank call because I didn’t understand it. What did crank mean? Was it related to cranky? I felt uncomfortable using the term crank call, and avoided doing so. When I started hearing prank call, I wondered if there were others out there like me, who didn’t understand the crank, figured they must have misheard it, and silently corrected it to prank, which made much more sense.

In other words, though I didn’t have the linguistic term for it at the time, I believed that prank call was a case of folk etymology applied to the original crank call. It wasn’t just that crank call was the version I heard first; it was that prank call made more sense, and a change from less sense to more sense is more plausible than a change from more sense to less sense. But now I want to find out for sure.

My unabridged Webster’s dictionary doesn’t have an entry for prank call at all (though it of course has prank). It does, however, have this definition of crank:

21. of, pertaining to, or by an unbalanced or overzealous person: a crank phone call, crank mail

It also has these related definitions:

crank: 2. an ill-tempered, grouchy person
crank letter: hostile or fanatical letter, often sent anonymously

So far, this is consistent with my speculation: the older form, crank (phone) call, has been around long enough to make it in, while prank call hasn’t. (Although still, I’ve been hearing it for long enough that I’m surprised it’s not in there yet.) The online OED does not have entries for either crank call or prank call, so no help there. As for the present day, it looks like prank call is winning: It gets 1,870K Google hits, compared to 113K hits for crank call.

I’ll put out a call to the American Dialect Society on this, but in the meantime, what term do you use, and where did you grow up? Did you switch from one to the other, and if so, why?

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7 Responses to “Pranks and Cranks”

  1. Viola said

    For some reason when I was a kid I always associated crank call with the old-fashioned telephone that needed to be cranked (like an old pencil sharpener attached to the wall) in order to make the prank call. It seemed natural to me that the older generation would use crank instead of prank given this association. Has anyone else had the same thoughts?
    BTW, I use prank…not that I prank call. Prank answering is more fun…er…not that I make a habit of it. ;o)

  2. The Ridger said

    I use them both, but they don’t mean the same thing. A prank call is a joke; a crank call is hostile or harassing. I suspect I (or others) may have created this distinction to explain why there are two terms, as often happens, I believe, with two competing variants.

  3. David said

    I agree with The Ridger that they don’t mean the same thing. And I think the word prank has been around long enough to be genuine in the context of an apology for employees playing pranks on customers. Crank calls are something else, and not at all necessarily what the employees were doing in 1898.

  4. Dann said

    Although I heard both growing up, I always leaned towards “prank.” I can recall that whenever a friend of mine would use “crank,” a part of my young self would become super-cynical and I’d stare them in the face thinking, “What does that even mean?” I never thought of looking up the definition of ‘crank,’ but now that I see that it is actually relevant to the action of making a prank phone call, I’m quite fascinated.

  5. Matthew said

    I’ve always used “prank,” and “crank” has always struck me as strange.

  6. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I, too, have always used “prank call” for the practical-joke sense; somebody who makes a “crank call” is dead serious about the strange, angry, and fanatical message he’s conveying.

  7. dgm said

    We always used “crank calling” to refer to any pranks with the telephone, with no distinguishing between harassing words and asking for Prince Albert in a can. This was during my formative years in southern Virginia, early to mid-seventies.

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