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shameless pleading

Crack (Excellent)

Spot on.

Dear Word Detective: I see that about five years ago you answered a question about “crack,” but you left out the meaning that’s puzzling me. What about “crack” meaning “excellent,” as in “crack troops” or “a crack shot”? Would this have anything to do with “crackerjack,” also meaning “excellent,” after which the popcorn concoction was named? — Pat.

Hey, you’re right. It’ll be exactly five years ago next month that I wrote a column on “cracked up” (as in “That restaurant wasn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be”). Gee, time just zips by when you’re doing whatever it is I’ve been doing. As Groucho Marx said, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” Incidentally, how come dogs and cats don’t have to eat vegetables or fruit? “Don’t give your dog broccoli, it’s poison to them!” “Cats can’t eat apples, they’ll die!” But pizza, ice cream, cheeseburgers, fettuccine alfredo? No problemo. How conveeeeenient, eh?

Most of us probably associate the word “crack” with a break or fissure, usually unwanted, in something: a crack in a mirror, cracks in the ceiling, the crack in the Earth’s surface from which Rodan emerged, etc. But the original sense of the verb “to crack,” when it appeared as the Old English “cracian,” derived from Germanic roots, was “to make a dry, sharp sound,” and the word itself was almost certainly formed “echoically,” in imitation of just such a sound. We still use this initial sense of “to crack” in such forms as “to crack the whip,” meaning “to make someone work harder or more diligently,” which originally referred to an overseer causing his whip to make a cracking sound as a threat of punishment.

“Crack” expanded fairly quickly, as a verb, to mean “to break something,” usually producing a “crack” sound in the process. The noun form of “crack” followed the same pattern, meaning both the sudden, sharp sound (particularly with reference to rifle or cannon fire) and the presumably resulting break in something. Both the noun and the verb also quickly acquired a wide variety of figurative uses, such as “crack of dawn” and “to take a crack at something” (which originally referred to a shot with a rifle).

One of the most prolific branches of the figurative uses of “crack” was that using “crack” as slang to mean “loud talk, boasting or bragging” or “a sharp or cutting remark,” a sense still found in “wisecrack.” The “boast” sense also gave us “cracking up,” meaning “to strongly recommend or promote,” now usually found in the lament that something is “not what it’s cracked up to be.”

The use of “crack” as an adjective meaning “first-rate, excellent” in such phrases as “crack shot” and “crack regiment” also derives from this “boast or brag” sense. A “crack regiment,” for instance, is a unit whose proficiency has been rightly “cracked up,” the subject of public admiration and justifiable boasting by its members.

“Crackerjack,” which today we know (at least in the US) as a confection made of candied popcorn and peanuts, was, back in the late 19th century, both a noun meaning “a remarkable person” and an adjective meaning “excellent, of the highest quality” (“Say, by the way, look out — he’s a crackerjack boxer,” 1910). The root of “crackerjack” is simply that “crack” meaning “excellent” again, coupled with the suffix “jack” (which really doesn’t mean anything but does provide a nice echo of “cracker”).

5 comments to Crack (Excellent)

  • Mark

    Then there is the Irisch “craic” meaning a laugh, good fun, good party. I always thought it was a gaelic word, but apparently it was borrowed from the Scottish English “crack” But now a seperate and specific meaning.

  • Rube

    As I understand it, (I have no references to cite), the popcorn based CrackerJack is in reference to British Seamen. They were referred to as Jack Tars and as they were, (in the 19th century), the best seamen afloat, they were given the sobriquet “CrackerJacks”. The only proof of this I can give is the picture of a sailor on the front of the CrackJack box. Why else would that picture be the logo?

  • Alex

    And if a Southerner should ask an outlander to please crack the (car) window, I hope that he or she does not break it! It is a request to open the window just a bit — or a crack.

  • Anne McLeod

    Jack has a long history in English – way before Jack-in-the-Box and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Its beginning was the ankle grabber, Yakov-Jacob-Jack (and from there, Jacques, James, Diego, Jammes . . .) The ankle grabbing eponym was more sharp than dishonest, also diligent, and spiritual. He became the father of twelve tribes of Israel, all of whom were dispersed throughout the world in accordance with Scriptural prophecies. Many of the tribal members intermarried with their non-Hebrew neighbors to the extent that many people all over the world have at least a trace of Hebrew blood and DNA. Ten of the tribes were said to be lost from the time of the Assyrian captivity of the ten northern tribes of Israel, many of whom were forcibly removed from the land of Israel and forced to settle in remote corners of the Assyrian empire. There were then waves of emigrations from that area, across Europe (and probably across the north, south, and east as well, but being from the west we have documentation of waves of migrations from the northern middle east across Europe of various barbarians (anyone whose faith and customs were different from those of the lands they crossed – especially if that faith required destruction of native pagan worship sites) Some names that have come up in that context are vandals and goths, who have lent their names to dark and destructive linguistic themes. Even the word sack (as in destroy) probably can be traced back to Isaac, jacob’s father. But back to the linguistics of Jacob – Jack. When the ten northern tribes of Israel split from the southern tribes, one of the names applied to the ten northern tribes was Israel, leaving the name Judah on the southern tribes that remained loyal to the family of King David. Israel is another name for Jacob. So the heritage of Jacob was not only the land of Israel of the northern ten tribes, but the name Jack, meaning a sharp or clever individual who lives by his wits, skill, persistence and faith. Hence Jack of all trades, Cracker Jack, Jack-in-the-box, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

  • Andrew Smith

    I understood that crack troops came from the Knights Templar castle of Crac des Chevaliers. Only the best of the best were picked to serve there. They were Crac Troops.

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