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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

cold call

(1980’s | businese (sales) | “peddling”)

Wonderful thing about this expression — it hasn’t really changed since 1980, when it completed its shift from personal sales visit to approach by telephone, a shift already accomplished elsewhere in the culture. (It’s the difference between “paying a call” and “making a call.”) In 1978, Jonathan Kwitny defined “cold call” as “blind telephone solicitation” (Wall Street Journal, April 10). The phrase seems to have arisen in the sixties among salesmen, long after the practice of attempting to sell to people who had not been warned of your coming was well established. Many items were sold that way door-to-door for most of the twentieth-century, and “cold call” originally denoted such encounters. Actually, the phrase more often conjured up a salesman cooling his heels in an executive’s anteroom than the outdoor work of the traveling drummer. By the early eighties the phrase could also apply not just to selling a product or service, but selling oneself, as a job applicant telephoning potential employers without any previous contact. Today, “cold call” still means both these things and is still used almost invariably in sales-related contexts — though it can be used of any telephone call made without prior notice, even if it has nothing to do with selling. Beyond that it hasn’t broadened, or accreted any metaphorical uses.

Telemarketers and stockbrokers did more to popularize this expression — and give it a bad name — than any other breeds of salesman. In the hands of either, cold calls are rife with misleading promises, not to mention just plain getting on lots of people’s nerves. The federal Do Not Call Registry is partly intended to make it difficult for commercial enterprises to cold-call (the expression graduated to verbhood somewhere around 2000, as far as I can tell) those who would rather be left alone. But the registry makes exceptions for organizations that have done business with you before. That raises the question of whether “cold call” covers pitches for an unrelated product from a company that you’ve bought from before. I would say yes.

Cold calling is widely understood to be ethically dubious, and the phrase, like “upsell,” has a taint it can’t quite shake no matter how hard you try to make it reputable. The prejudice is an old one — traveling salesmen made lively objects of suspicion for decades, and not just because they knocked up unlocked-up daughters. Snake-oil vendors abounded, and they liked nothing better than to show up on the doorsteps of people who hadn’t requested their presence. Dealing with a stranger trying to sell you something on the phone is, if anything, more intrusive, especially if it’s a robocall. Salespeople, start-ups looking for clients, and hustlers all continue to make cold calls because they work, at least if you make enough of them. There are people out there who go for the sales pitch, and by the law of averages, you will find some of them. Many recipients express their displeasure by hanging up within a minute or two, so a failed cold call (the vast majority) doesn’t eat up much time. Never mind that everyone hates them, including the drudges who have to make them for a living.

Have you noticed that there isn’t a word for “person on the receiving end of a telephone call”? It seems like there ought to be an everyday term for it. You can use “recipient,” as I did above, but it doesn’t sound idiomatic. Nobody says “callee,” the ostensible opposite of “caller.” Why isn’t there a word for the one who lifts the handset (or receiver, as we said in the old days), or flips open the cell phone, when it’s such a common occurrence? “Phonee”? “Quarry”? “Callcatcher”? “Picker-upper”? Let’s get to work, America!

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