Sunday, January 2, 2011

Annals of overuse: "crank"

In researching today's Globe column, on the history of banished words, I learned that crank was among the words labeled "overworked" as long as a century ago. The Baltimore Sun article making the accusation -- reprinted in the New York Times (where I found it) in 1896 -- included this etymological discussion of crank:
That much overworked word “crank” gained universal vogue in connection with Guiteau’s assassination of President Garfield, but it was long before that applied by the late Don Piatt, who claimed to be its inventor, to Horace Greeley –- the purpose of it being to liken the famous editor to the crank of a hand organ,which is forever grinding out the same old tunes. The word, as we have now come to apply it, means much more and worse; it implies a condition of mind verging upon insanity, and this has given rise to the erroneous notion that it has its origin in the German word “krank.”
The hand organ association (allegedly) proposed by Don (or Donn) Piatt, a Civil War veteran and journalist, apparently didn't become part of the word's official history. The OED says the colloquial crank --  "a person with a mental twist ... esp. one who is enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an eccentric, a monomaniac" -- dates to 1833:  "Uncle Sam's ‘Old Mother Bank’ Is managed by a foreign crank." Since Piatt was born in 1819, he would probably have known this use of crank before he came up with the organ-grinding metaphor.

And though our crank is not derived from German krank, the words do share an ancestry. Crank comes from a rare Old English verb, says the OED, meaning "to fall in battle, of which the primitive meaning appears to have been ‘to draw oneself together in a bent form, to contract oneself stiffly, curl up.’ There are "numerous derivatives" in various languages: "English crank belongs to the literal sense-group, with the primary notion of something bent together or crooked; German and Dutch krank adj. ‘sick’, formerly ‘weak, slight, small,’ shows the figurative development."


Bryan White said...

I wrote a post on my own blog a while back about overused and misused words:

As I point out there, it seems that derogatory and insulting terms, such as "crank", suffer the most.

Kay L. Davies said...

Fascinating, a word with mixed, or forgotten, etymology. Since there is more than one suggested origin of the word, I think I'll take my pick.
I like the organ-grinder one, applied to Horace Greeley, much better than the OED's idea of drawing oneself into a bent form.
-- K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

John Lawler said...

This usage of crank seems almost predestined, given the phonosemantics of the kr- initial cluster. The 88 English simplex words starting with /kr/ fall into four largely overlapping classes:
1. 1-Dimensional Bent, Split: 29 words
2. Auditory: 16
3. Compress/Shrink, Disarray: 44
4. Pejorative: 41
As can be seen, most are in several classes. I had tagged crank as 1, 3, and 4; the hand-organ sense would add 2 as well, though I don't think that's really part of the modern sense.

jhm said...

Since a fair portion of those dedicated to making ex cathedra pronouncements about usage are themselves cranks (and to be honest, I wouldn't place myself squarely outside this set), it stands to reason that they might be predisposed—perhaps from being so described, perhaps by dint of self recognition—to disliking the word 'crank' itself.

Richard Hershberger said...

As for the condemnation in 1896 of "crank" as being overused, I suspect that this was in part due to its baseball association. It was at that time a synonym of "fan". Both words took on that sense in the 1880s. "Crank" originally had a connotation of someone who was a bit too much into supporting his team (like those guys today who attend football games in freezing weather eschewing shirts in favor of body paint in their team's colors). By the 1890s it had lost most of this, and was more often used merely for spectators at baseball games. The two words coexisted for several decades, with "crank" fading out in the early 20th century.

The 1890s were also the first great era of the daily newspaper sports section. Newspapers had reported on sports to some extent for decades, but this expanded during the Hearst/Pulitzer era. So it seems entirely plausible that "crank" could be perceived as overused. (Of course since this usage has faded away, "fan" presumably is twice as overused. No one seems to have thought to complain. Yet.)