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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | journalese (politics))

The thing denoted by the word “robocall” is considerably older than the word itself. The pre-recorded, automated telephone call, almost as widely reviled as it is exploited, has benign and malevolent uses. Professor Frink, in The Simpsons, envisioned using the technology to tell children about school cancellations, which seems harmless enough. But in the same episode, Homer demonstrates a range of abuses. An appointment reminder from your auto dealer or the doctor’s office may not be so bad. But no one likes non-human solicitations, or repeated entreaties to vote for this candidate or the next. And that points up two more general, though not universal, characteristics of the robocall: they are unsolicited and widely disseminated.

“Robocall” first arose as a political term, meaning an automated, pre-recorded call in support of a candidate. The first published reference I found dates from 1999, which mentioned a large increase in the number of “robo-calls” (charmingly hyphenated) during the 1998 campaign. The recorded message might feature the candidate, or perhaps a celebrity delivering a message of support. First hit in LexisNexis: 2001. The database tells an interesting story. The term jumped in frequency every election year, just a few in 2002, several more in 2004, no end of hits in 2006. Then the word was on everyone’s lips.

Almost as soon as the expression burrowed its way into the lexicon, it lost its political coloring. Now the FCC defines “robocalls” as “unsolicited prerecorded telemarketing calls.” “Telemarketing” is key, because speech that sells you a candidate is more protected than speech that sells you a product or service. The do-not-call registry (aren’t the names of government programs supposed to be more creative than that? How about a nice acronym, guys?) will keep the sales force at bay, but not the politicos. It makes sense if you care about the survival of democracy, or even republicanism, but it can be mighty annoying that last month or two before a close election.

In my youth, we expected recorded messages to say, “This is a recording.” We weren’t used to hearing them and expected to be warned. They were pretty uncommon back then, at least in my memory. The expectation of inconvenient telephone calls was well established throughout the culture; the pollster or sweepstakes representative calling just as the family sat down to dinner was a joke everyone laughed and grumbled over. We didn’t like them then, when there weren’t nearly as many. As the number of landline users shrinks, and more people subscribe to the do-not-call list, do those of us who are left get even more robocalls than we used to?

The fact that the word spread so widely within a few years suggests that there was no reasonable equivalent term before that. So far I haven’t been able to think of one. They’ve been around a long time; autodialers have existed for decades, and the unholy matrimony of the autodialer and the recorded message was solemnized at least forty years ago. Why did it take so long for someone to think of it, or at least something punchier than “This is a recording”? The movie “Robocop” was released in 1987, so that’s a fifteen-year gap; it doesn’t seem likely there was a decisive influence. Then again, “robo” is not that common a prefix; Wiktionary can scare up only ten examples, all of them — except “robocall” — pretty obscure, if you ask me. “Robosigning” came up frequently in reports on illegal bank foreclosure practices a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have entered everyday language. I nominate two more: robocock, which simply must be the title of a porno movie, and robokiller, which could be literal or figurative. “Robokill” sounds better, but it doesn’t sit as well as a verb.


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