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It would appear that the usage of call on someone meaning to visit someone, usually for a short time, as in “We could call on my parents if we have time” has become somewhat obsolete according to this post on ELL.

The idiomatic expression is well present in main dictionaries and in the ODO, for instance it is cited as the first meaning:

(1)Pay a visit to (someone):

  • ‘he's planning to call on Katherine today’

while the Cambridge Dictionary (3rd entry) defines the expression as an AmE one:

call on someone (phrasal verb with call US ​) to come to see someone; visit:

  • She went to the hospital to call on a sick friend.

So, is this expression still used and commonly understood or is it actually “dated”? or is it more a question of AmE vs BrE usage?

Edit:

After I posted this question a new answer, (actually a wiki answer) has been posted on the ELL question which appears to contradict the main accepted one. Hope someone can offer a more conclusive answer to this question, if possible.

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    It's still current in British English, though "call in on" might be more common.
    – Chris H
    Jan 20, 2018 at 8:11
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    Doesn’t feel dated to me either. Go see would probably be more frequent, and call on may be a tad more formal and less colloquial, but I wouldn’t think twice about using it, and I doubt anyone would be considered old-fashioned for doing so either. Jan 20, 2018 at 10:15
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    My feeling is that it is on the decline in the US, and tends to be used more for quick, non-social stops, as in call in at the cleaners and pick up the laundry. It's decline probably just reflects changes in social behavior stemming from cell phones. You can certainly still call in on aunt Martha at the nursing home and see how she's doing.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 20, 2018 at 12:13
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    In the Cambridge Dictionary, it's the meaning of (ASK TO DO) that is American, the meaning that you cite does not specifically say it is AmEng. See the BrEng variant call on somebody
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 20, 2018 at 12:39
  • @Mari-LouA - You have to look at the 3rd entry (visit) in the link of Cambridge Dictionary I posted.
    – user 66974
    Jan 20, 2018 at 13:04

6 Answers 6

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+100

In sales currently, we certainly use the term, and it isn't a dated phrase (for us, at least). I also don't see a lot of regional (US) variation for this usage, in my experience.

This an example of the common usage I am referring to:

  • "Bill isn't here, he's calling-on customers."
  • "I usually call-on customers in the morning."
  • "Yesterday. I called-on 18 customers!

Although the hyphen is optional, I usually opt to use it because it tells the reader these two words are meant to be said and understood together.

With that said, my blue-collar relatives born in the early 20th Century would use the term. I know doctor's call-on their patients in-hospital everyday.

But, I do not use it in social context, I'd instead say "visit" or "go over to" Sue's house.

So, as to the original question, my humble opinion is call-on is still used and commonly understood; however, in SOME areas (e.g., social), it is becoming “dated” rather than archaic. In professional areas, its usage seems alive and well."

YOU are rather experiencing the gradual morphing of language over time. The older you get, the more obvious the words and usage changes become.

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In AmE it's pretty obscure. It may be due to the fact that while we used to 'make a telephone call', now we simply use 'call' to mean: 'speak via the telephone'. In BrE they say "ring", so the meaning of call as "visit" was not trampled on.

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  • In BrEng the noun "phone call" is very common
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 20, 2018 at 14:37
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    I agree. In the Midwestern US, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone use "call" to mean "visit" in casual speech (though I'm certainly familiar with the usage from books). The phrase "call on" would probably be understood, but expressions like "make some calls" or "call (a)round" (which I think can refer to in-person interactions in BrE) would universally be understood as referring to phone conversations in the US.
    – 1006a
    Jan 20, 2018 at 16:31
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    @Mari-LouA - I don't doubt it. But, in AmE we have abandoned the "phone" qualifier, for the most part. As in: "I need to call my mother," "Where the hell have you been - you couldn't call?" or, "I gotta call in to work, to call out, today."
    – Oldbag
    Jan 23, 2018 at 14:50
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    Your reasoning that "call" can't mean "visit" seems completely unjustified, especially as a) many words have multiple meanings in english and b) "call on" is differentiated from "call" by the word "on".
    – AndyT
    Jan 23, 2018 at 15:40
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    @AndyT - I didn't say "can't" - I said it's "obscure".
    – Oldbag
    Jan 23, 2018 at 18:05
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The last remnant of this usage in American English may well be a call one makes after a death. Obituaries usually contain a notice such as:

Friends may call from noon to 2 p.m. on Friday at the funeral home.

The times given constitute calling or visitation hours. Friends may also call at the funeral home and sign a condolence book without calling on the family personally.

Clergy may make hospital calls collectively, but in reporting a single call on a hospitalized parishioner would most likely say they "visited" someone in the hospital just as anyone else would. More likely would be "calling on" visitors/prospective parishioners.

Contributing to the demise of this usage — even beyond the telephone — is the expression "pay a call on someone," which subsumes the use of "call on s.o."

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  • Interesting, could it be that the association with mournful events influenced its usage on a more colloquial basis?
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2018 at 15:33
  • Rituals have a tendency to preserve archaisms, or even archaic languages like Latin or Old Church Slavonic.
    – KarlG
    Jan 24, 2018 at 15:36
  • Yes, but what happened to the more colloquial call on (visit) someone?
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2018 at 15:37
  • Its social context disappeared and the telephone call took care of the rest.
    – KarlG
    Jan 24, 2018 at 15:38
  • That makes sense. That should have happened in BrE too, and online dictionaries should probably be updated.
    – user 66974
    Jan 24, 2018 at 15:40
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I'm confused about the debate. No, it hasn't fallen out of usage, at least by old people. This is both propper American, and British English, it is a formal term which is not recognized by casual types. I like it, and encourage you to use archaic words and phrases as much as you like. I mean sure I guess it's dated but who cares. If you like it, use it.

call on

Phrasal Verb

  1. Pay a visit to (someone) ‘he's planning to call on Katherine today’

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/call_on

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    I upvoted you but the prowlers keep downvoting.
    – Lambie
    Jun 16, 2018 at 21:44
  • @Lambie Thank you! I'm a bit old fashioned. I like archaic definitions best. Maybe because my main male role model growing up was born in 1900. "I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation." -Joan Jett :)
    – Jesse Ivy
    Jul 23, 2018 at 16:18
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    Jesse, you need to fix your spellin'. :)
    – Lambie
    Jul 23, 2018 at 16:19
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I think that to "call on or upon" evolved from the practice of leaving calling cards (aka visiting cards or tickets or compliments cards) at people's homes when stopping by for a short visit.

The practice apparently came from France and then moved to England in the 18th century, according to this source: calling card Here is a useful quote from it:

"Calling cards were an indispensable accessory to fashionable, upper class life in Britain, Europe, and the eastern United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though they started as simple unadorned cards to announce one's arrival, the Victorians took both the cards' designs and rules dictating usage to extravagant heights."

The following blog entry contains a short round-up of the practice and includes a bibliography at the end:calling, call and calling card

Here is more on the practice of calling cards as regards men in particular: men

And here from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a juicy quote about "call on":

"And that is quite impossible; for he is now in the custody of his friend, and Mr. Darcy would no more suffer him to call on Jane in such a part of London! My dear aunt, how could you think of it? Mr. Darcy may perhaps have heard of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities, were he once to enter it; and depend upon it, Mr. Bingley never stirs without him."

And there is Pickwick Papers and quote with "calling on the defendant Pickwick at these apartments": calling on

Nineteenth century literature is rife with this social practice.....I realize this does not exactly pinpoint the expression but it surely locates it within social history.

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I've never heard someone say "I called on Ken on my way home," yet here I am seeing it taught in Japan for the first time and thinking it's a mistake... This seems incredibly archaic to me as an Australian and don't see why it's being taught. Even if it's not completely dated, it's on it's way out.

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