The Grammarphobia Blog

Horsing around

Q: I’ve heard the expression “come a cropper” many times, but when a commentator used it the other night to describe one of the economic plans floated recently, I decided it was time to call on the maven. Enlightenment, if you please.

A: The phrase “come a cropper” originated in the late 1850s when it meant to fall heavily, according to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.).

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang explains that the expression came from fox-hunting and referred to a rider’s being thrown from a horse.

The word “cropper” here, Cassell’s says, may refer either to the rider’s tendency to be tossed over the horse’s crop (that is, neck), or to an earlier phrase, “neck and crop,” which means “bodily” or “totally.”

(No reliable sources mention any connection with the riding crop, the small whip that’s a familiar piece of equestrian equipment.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, which leans toward “neck and crop” as the probable source of “come a cropper,” cites a 1791 poem with these lines: “The startish beast took fright, and flop / The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!”

The word sleuth Michael Quinion notes that the “crop” in “neck and crop” might refer to the horse’s other end (its rump). On his website World Wide Words, he writes:

“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.”

However it came into being, the phrase “come a cropper” has appeared in other forms too, including “get a cropper” and “go a cropper.” In fact, the first published reference in the OED for the expression is of the “get” variety.

Here’s an expanded version of the OED citation, from a comic novel by Robert S. Surtees, Ask Mamma (1858): “Gameboy Green, thinking to show off, rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

Gameboy, h-m-m.

Soon the expression was being used figuratively for situations other than horsemanship. Anthony Trollope used it in his 1874 novel The Way We Live Now to describe a matrimonial disaster: “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.”

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