Notes on Becoming a Crank


Our Daily Correspondent


Gerard Dou, Woman Reading a Bible, ca. 1630.

There are many benefits to being a grown-up. Using stoves unsupervised, buying things online, enjoying herring. As children suspect, you can set your own bedtime; as adults know, this can be as early as you like. 

One of the worst things—besides the loss of innocence, I mean—is becoming a crank. When you’re a kid and you’re opinionated, it’s cute. Less so when you’re a teenager—you morph into an ass—but people forgive that, too. As a young adult, maybe you’ve become a jerk, but whatever, you still have idealism and fire in your belly. Then one day you wake up and you’re just a crank.

Let us be clear: we are not talking here about questions of morality. Big issues, real questions, and philosophical differences are not merely the staff of life, but necessary ongoing debates. While a crank’s crankiness may manifest in an adherence to social issues (and it often does), a true crank is equally committed to petty concerns, and, indeed, does not distinguish between the two.

The term probably derives from the machine part. One of the earliest usages of the tiresome, eccentric sort dates from 1833, and refers to the crank of a barrel organ: like an organ, a crank says the same thing over and over when wound up. (Cranky—sick from a creek or bed of water—may be another culprit. Either way, it’s not a compliment.)

I consider myself something of an authority on the subject, because I come from a long line of cranks. I currently live in a crank hotbed, and have certainly become a crank myself. It genuinely upset me when Lizzy Caplan’s CIA agent made a lay/lie error in The Interview—and believe me, this is the least of that movie’s problems. When the baker in Into the Woods confused me and I, I fumed. I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t help it—and this is when you know you are a crank, when these petty things burn in your gut and become a personal affront. 

Maybe some of it comes down to dynamism. Grammar: As kids, everyone is being taught at once, starting from roughly the same plane of ignorance. Then, at a certain age, people stop learning. You either know something or you don’t, or you don’t care, and chances are you’re not going to change. As a result, other people are by default wrong about things, and the question becomes what to do about this. 

I suppose that is a question, too: Can you be a silent crank? That is, if you know in your heart that you are, but you keep silent and choose your battles and recognize that these things aren’t important—are you a normal person? Or are you just an organ that’s been muffled, going to bed at seven and stewing over a grammatical mistake in a movie? Maybe it’s the caring that makes the difference.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.