Which came first: prank call or crank call?

Neal Whitman nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET
Thu Jun 12 04:47:12 UTC 2008

Below is an excerpt from a blog post in which I speculate that 'prank call'
is a folk-etymology reworking of 'crank call', but come up short after
checking unabridged Webster's and online OED. Does anyone have dates for
either of these terms?

Neal Whitman
Email: nwhitman at ameritech.net
Blog: http://literalminded.wordpress.com
Webpage: http://literalmindedlinguistics.com

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.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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