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One of the appendixes to the Dune trilogy describes the compilation of the Orange Catholic Bible by delegates from all major Earth religions, who were known as the Commission of Ecumenical Translators.

At the time, there was apparently frustration and cynicism about what they were up to:

Troubadours composed witty, biting songs about the one hundred and twenty-one "Old Cranks" as the C.E.T. delegates came to be called. (The name arose from a ribald joke which played on the C.E.T. initials and called the delegates "Cranks-Effing-Turners.") One of the songs, "Brown Repose," has undergone periodic revival and is popular even today.

What could the "ribald joke" have been?

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I agree with @FuzzyBoots that the "Effing" stands for "fucking".

However, I think the whole phrase is a little deeper/cleverer than just the fucking (something, something, unskilled labour...).

The "Cranks" part is using the slang definition to mean a person with unusual, often crazy ideas. But, it is also being used in the phrase to mean some device that creates movement between two parts of a machine (e.g. he turned the crank to start the car engine). In the context of what the CET is trying to achieve, they would be tweaking all the religions to fit into one - cranking the words to get them to fit.

The "turners" bit is the plural of "crank turner" (i.e. turners). These are the people (plural) turning the crank to get the cohesion between the religions and by inference influencing the belief system of the universe. In the context of Dune, this would be the manipulation of the populace by religion/belief systems and these are the people turning the crank to get people to believe what they say is canonical. You could also say something similar about the Bene Gesserit being the people turning the crank to get the end that they want.

An alternative interpretation of the the "brown repose" part is that these CETers are all people of esoteric knowledge, perhaps so highly specialized that they might consider themselves to be the only one to understand their logic/reasoning or all the intricacies of the problem. People who are like this are prone to "brown study" or contemplation of their own thoughts - so might appear lazy (insert joke about mathematicians needing only wastepaper basket and philosophers not even needing that...). Adapting brown study to brown repose (given the location in Hawaii) doesn't seem like a big stretch to me.

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    In period for the book to be written, a desk calculator would have been an old school mechanical hand crank unit, a "crank turner" would be a desk jockey in a time when there weren't so many desk jobs. You'll see the term come up every so often but it's not common due to total obsolescence
    – Separatrix
    Jan 17, 2023 at 13:41
  • @Separatrix Thanks. I didn't know that about the desk calculators. Adds another layer to the phrase - all these church people sitting there being desk jockeys trying to get agreement between the different religions.
    – bob1
    Jan 19, 2023 at 20:05
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    I found another use of crank turner that might apply, organ grinders. These were going out of fashion around that time and would also be a good insult to a group who sit around making noise at each other.
    – Separatrix
    Jan 24, 2023 at 10:48
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I suspect that the joke is that "Effing" is one of the minced oaths for "Fucking", so the joke is either just that the swear word is inserted, much like how in the American military, it's not unusual to label a new addition to the squad as the FNG, F**king New Guy, or that they're commenting on the Cranks having carnal relations with the Turners (although I will admit that I have no idea what Turners are in the context of Dune unless they're just making the association of turning cranks).

Side note, it seems the general consensus is that Brown Repose is about their meeting being in Hawaii, so there may be some joke about schtupping the natives.

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@FuzzyBoots and @bob1 have both given excellent answers. For completeness I'll post my own idea about what the joke could have been.

As per @bob1's answer a crank is a person with crazy or unconventional ideas. But it is also a "turner" - a device which generates rotational movement - and the joke is that the C.E.T. delegates are more than just ordinary cranks, they are cranks in the most crude, direct and literal sense possible - "f***ing turners".

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