“Come a cropper”

The always vigilant Nancy Friedman alerted me on Twitter to something she labeled “Attempted Britishism” in this passage from an Esquire piece by Charles M. Pierce:

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 10.03.25 AM

The Britishism part is the phrase “come a cropper” and the “Attempted” part is the apostrophe, which doesn’t belong. Nancy checked it out and found Pierce frequently used the expression, always with an apostrophe. (The asterisk after “president” is another story, presumably Pierce’s commentary on the fitness of the current occupant of the office.)

Gary Martin, in his Phrase Finder website, has a good explanation of the phrase’s origin, which has do with the nether quarters of a horse — the “croup” or “crupper.”

In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen ‘neck and crop’; for example, this extract from the English poet Edward Nairne’s Poems, 1791:

A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out — Yoix — and cracking of his whip,

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

‘Neck and crop’ and ‘head over heels‘ probably both derive from the 16th century term ‘neck and heels’, which had the same meaning. ‘Come a cropper’ is just a colloquial way of describing a ‘neck and crop’ fall. The phrase is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858:

[He] “rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

By the time John C. Hotten published his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than just the specific failure to stay on a horse:

“Cropper, ‘to go a cropper’, or ‘to come a cropper’, that is, to fail badly.”

Martin also debunks the association of the phrase with one Henry Smith Cropper, who began selling  a platen printing press in 1866. “It was a successful design and before long all platen presses were known as croppers. It is suggested that ‘come a cropper’ derives from the accidents that print workers had when catching their fingers between the plates of the presses…. There’s no truth to it though.”

Here is an arcane point that you are welcome to skip. Part of Martin’s proof that the Henry Cropper etymology is bogus is the presence of various uses of “cropper” in John C. Hotten’s 1859 slang dictionary. In fact, a search through Google Books reveals that Hatten didn’t include the phrase till his 1874 edition.

The OED cites that 1874 use, as well as these subsequent quotes:

1875   A. Trollope Way we live Now I. xxxviii. 241   He would ‘be coming a cropper rather,’ were he to marry Melmotte’s daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none.
1877   H. A. Leveson Sport Many Lands 464   My horse put his foot in a hole and came down a cropper.
1951   T. Rattigan Who is Sylvia? i. 230   We bachelors welcome competition from married men. We so much enjoy watching them come the inevitable cropper.
1963   Times 30 Jan. 1/7   I came a proper cropper, dearie, all black and blue I was.

The quotes tell an interesting tale. The use of quotation marks in the Trollope suggests that the figurative, non-horse use, at least, was at that point new. And the Terrence Rattigan and Times quotes both have infixed adjectives before “cropper,” suggesting that the phrase had become a cliche, or at least well worn.

As for British and American use of the phrase, the Google Ngrams Viewer chart, showing frequency of use in books, is illuminating:

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It’s similar to the pattern we saw for “we all of us.” British origin, but Americans catch up and use it about the same in the turn-of-the -20th-century period (in this case shortly after the turn). Then separation in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a slight closing of the gap as the phrase begins to seems old-fashioned in the U.K. and appealing in the U.S., in part as a result of the NOOBs phenomenon.

Ngram Viewer only has reliable data through 2008, but the New York Times archives show continuing solid use of the phrase. “Come a cropper” has appeared 94 times in the Times, all since 1920; here’s a baseball article from five years later:

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 12.09.43 PM

But the Times has grown partial to the phrase over time, with all but thirteen of the uses coming since the 1970s, and 17 of them since 2000. A couple of interesting things turn up in the newspaper’s archives. For one, Richard Nixon used “come a cropper” in the White House transcripts released as part of Watergate investigation in 1973:

For an inquiry to start with the proposition of [Sam] Ervin and [Howard] Baker, where you don’t come a cropper right there at the beginning on whether you can get the three branches. What’s your view of the three-branch, John [Erlichman]?

And check out the most recent use of the past tense, in a 2017 crossword blog by Caitlin Lovinger:

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 6.19.40 PMThat’s right, it’s (wrongly) hyphenated, “a-cropper.” The hyphen shows up other times in the Times, including in a column by language maven William Safire. You can sort of see the impetus behind both, as the word “a” in the phrase doesn’t act the way we expect the word “a” to act, making it seem like there’s some sort of abbreviation going on. It’s similar to the way people write highfaluting or highfalutin’, rather than the correct highfalutin. So get rid of the apostrophes and hyphens and use “come a cropper” naked. It feels good!

17 responses to ““Come a cropper”

  1. How widely would its meaning be understood by American readers and listeners? Or in general, would it be received as an unknown ‘foreign’ phrase?

  2. Anthony, this particular 1 (me) had no clue. I remember hearing it at some time before now, but I sort of assumed it was maybe related to a “bumper crop,” so my personal imaginary meaning for it was completely wrong. I may not be alone.

  3. First of all, congratulations to Nancy for coining the simultaneously elegant and dismissive “Attempted Britishism.” That’s perfect.

    This is a phrase that is known to me but one that would not be missed by me were it to vanish from usage. It’s just cumbersome and silly and not in any way more evocative or poetic or charming or rustic or whatever than any other term for “fail.”

    I don’t think many Americans would understand what it means by itself, though I reckon a lot would figure it out from context. It seems to me– and this is perhaps not fair– that is it EXACTLY the kind of Britishism that, correctly, gives Americans who use Britishisms a bad name. It fairly demands to be pronounced with a British accent, is of obscure provenance in terms of comprehension, and adds nothing to the fine existing stock of expressions for the same thing– recently including, derivatively in terms of connotation, “Okay, boomer.”

    • It has a more subtle meaning than just fail, in the same way as being thrown off a horse while moving forward is more than just failing. It has the nuance of a fairly sudden and unexpected derailment from a path. In my head I can imagine it said with an American accent, so I don’t think it would sound silly or pretentious. It’s a pretty common expression in the UK.

  4. Can you please look into that Yoix word in the article? I googled it and it’s now being used as the name of a tech company. I didn’t go deep so didn’t find any linguistic origins of it. Thanks!

    • At your service. The OED says the main spelling is “Yoicks” and has this definition: “Chiefly Fox-hunting. A call or cry used to urge on hounds. Sometimes also used more generally as an exclamation indicating excitement or encouragement.”

  5. I wonder if the US common word “sharecropper” could be in the mix ? The apostrophe hinting at the missing “share” ?

  6. Lesley McCullough

    As a Canadian I do use this phrase and like its old fashioned and slightly dashing sound. But I usually use it in the past tense, “he wasn’t very careful and came a cropper when the results of the audit were made public” or the simple future, “If he doesn’t take care, he’ll come a cropper.”

    • I think that’s pretty much how it’s always used, plus the participle form–“he had come a cropper,” “you wouldn’t want to come a cropper,” etc.

  7. Is it connected with the crop that is used to hit the horse?

  8. I can’t help wanting to point out another inaccuracy in the way Mr Pierce has used the phrase – he says “This had … come a’cropper”, when I am sure the phrase is only able to be used of a person. not a thing or a plan. “HE or SHE had come a cropper” is fine, but IT or THIS would be odd in my view.

  9. It’s even worse if you come a purler. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/purler). Quite a common phrase in the UK.

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