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Come a cropper

Q From Pauline Keitt, Henry Wieman, and Peter Thorson: Any information about the expression to come a cropper?

A We use come a cropper now to mean that a person has been struck by some serious misfortune, but it derives from hunting, where it originally meant a heavy fall from a horse. Its first appearance was in 1858, in a late and undistinguished work called Ask Mamma, by that well-known Victorian writer on hunting, R S Surtees, who’s perhaps best known for Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities.

The earliest easily traceable source of cropper is the Old Norse word kropp for a swelling or lump on the body. This is closely related to the Old English word for the rounded head or seed body of a plant, from which we get our modern word crop for the produce of a cultivated plant. In the sense of a bodily lump, it was applied first to the crop of a bird but then extended to other bodily protuberances.

This is where things get complicated: the same word travelled from a Germanic ancestor through Vulgar Latin and Old French back into English as croup for the rump of a horse. From this we also get crupper, the strap on a horse’s harness that passes back from the saddle under the tail.

At the end of the eighteenth century English developed a phrase neck and crop, with the sense of “completely”. This is first recorded in a poem by Lady Carolina Nairne:

The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!

(You may not know her name, but she’s best remembered for writing, among others, the songs “Will you no come back again?” and “Charlie is my darling”.)

Now neck and crop is a rather odd expression, and we’re not sure how it came to be. It could be that crop is a variant of croup, suggesting that a horse that fell neck and crop collapsed all of a heap, with both head and backside hitting the ground together. Or perhaps crop had its then normal meaning, so the expression was an intensified version of neck, perhaps linked to an older expression neck and heels that’s similar to head over heels.

It’s thought that come a cropper derives from neck and crop, with cropper in the role of an agent noun, referring to something done in a neck-and-crop manner, and that the phrase developed from there.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Apr. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 April 1999.