Political administrations sometimes have characteristic words attached to them. In the sixties, Harold Wilson was for a while associated with the word technology (as in the “white heat of technological revolution” that he said his government was forging). The Thatcher years were linked to TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) and the administration of her successor John Major with sleaze, a word that seemed almost to be branded on the forehead of several ministers. The present Labour government is currently under attack for what journalists are calling cronyism, a term much used this week in reports of the co-option of a Scottish media magnate, Gus Macdonald, to an unpaid Government post, but with the promise of a seat in the House of Lords.
The word is an obvious compound of the much older crony. This started out as a wholesome and inoffensive description. It seems to have been invented as a bit of undergraduate slang at the University of Cambridge in the early 1660s or thereabouts. Its origins are as vague and undocumented as you might expect, but the informed guess is that it had nothing to do with the much older English word crone for an old woman, but was modelled on the Greek khronios, “long-standing”, derived from the better-known khronos “time”. The idea was that someone was a crony if you had been friends with them a long time, or even perhaps if you were exact contemporaries of theirs.
Our first recording of the word is from the diary of Samuel Pepys, a former Cambridge man, for 30 May 1665: “Jack Cole, my old school-fellow ... who was a great chrony of mine”. Note that his spelling showed the word’s direct relationship with the original Greek. But by 1678 the “h” had gone for ever, permanently obscuring its antecedents. The word continued to exist in a blameless way for the better part of three centuries, being joined about 1840 by cronyism, which at first meant only the ability to make friends, or perhaps the desire to do so. It seems from the examples in the OED that both words long maintained an implication that the friends were from school or college days.
The change came, I am told, with the Truman administration, which was accused of appointing friends to government posts without regard to their qualifications. A journalist on the New York Times described this practice as cronyism, so modifying the sense of the word. On 17 August 1952, the newspaper spoke of: “The amount of politically entrenched bureaucracy that has earned for Mr. Truman’s regime its sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste and confusion”.
After that, innocence was destroyed, and it became progressively more difficult to use the word in its old sense, which in any case was beginning to sound more than a little old-fashioned. With the change in cronyism, crony was dragged along with it and now also often has this derogatory sense of a friendship with a whiff of political corruption or preferential advancement about it, not just (or not even) the sense of long-standing friends who enjoy each others’ company.