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robocall also robo-call

noun [countable]

an automated telephone call which plays a recorded message

robocall also robo-call

verb [transitive]

'As of September 1, 2009, prerecorded commercial telemarketing calls to consumers – commonly known as robocalls – were prohibited, unless the telemarketer has obtained permission in writing from consumers who want to receive such calls …'

Tucson Citizen 5th March 2010

'This is a first for me … ebay robo-called my cell phone just before (8.00am EST March 2nd) to let me know about a one-day 50% off sale on auction listing fees, today only. Sounds like a last minute attempt to boost revenues a bit.'

AuctionBytes (Blog) 2nd March 2010

The phone rings and you rush to answer it, in anticipation of a call you've been expecting, only to be greeted by a pause and then a drawling, pre-recorded voice declaring:

'Congratulations, you have won a luxury cruise …'

Yes, like thousands of others, you've been targeted by a telemarketing campaign, and are one of the many unwilling recipients of a robocall.

In the US, robocalls were a particularly controversial feature of the Republican presidential campaign in 2008, sparking an anti-Republican backlash

A robocall is a pre-recorded telephone call that is sent to hundreds or even thousands of telephone numbers. An automatic dialling computer, sometimes called an autodialler, goes through a targeted list of phone numbers and delivers a pre-recorded message. The use of robo- conveys the mechanised nature of the call; though the voice is not always computer generated, the receiver can usually tell from the outset that they are listening to an automated message and not a genuine person.

In the UK, robocalls are usually associated with telemarketing (telephone marketing) and the concept of cold calling: an unexpected telephone call from someone trying to sell goods or services. Over in the US however, robocalls are also used in political campaigning. US law does regulate automated calls, requiring that all telephone calls using recorded messages – political or otherwise – identify who the calling organisation is and how it can be contacted. Political robocalls are, however, exempt from all other Federal regulations, which means that they can be used during an election campaign to target all phone users, even those who have specifically registered to block receipt of automated calls.

Robocalls were a particularly controversial feature of the Republican presidential campaign in 2008. Sparking a subsequent anti-Republican backlash, the McCain/Palin campaign issued a number of calls depicting Barack Obama as a terrorist sympathiser, widely viewed as sleaze and causing irritation to potential voters. You can hear an example by clicking here.

Background – robocall

The term robocall first appeared in the late 1990s, and is more common in American rather than British usage, perhaps because of its association with US electioneering, as discussed above. Following the pattern of call in its telephone sense, robocall is also used as a transitive verb, often occurring in the passive as be / get robocalled, e.g. I just got robocalled by an insurance company.

Robo- is, of course, based on the noun robot, which dates back to the 1920s and is in fact derived from the Czech word robota meaning 'forced labour'. Robo- now features more widely in English as a prefix suggesting that something (or someone) is automated or machine-like. A couple of contemporary examples are robo-mail (e-mail coming from automated sources that a user has subscribed to) and robo-tweet – an automatic message from a Twitter user, such as an automatic reply set up for when someone is on holiday.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 20th April 2010.

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