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ONCE AGAIN, I SEEM to feed myself (and you) lines that call for more research. A couple days ago, I cited The San Francisco Call newspaper describing actress Beatrice d’Essling as “a fair eastern crack.”
This website is family-friendly. The San Francisco Call was a family newspaper, and its quote came from February 22, 1911. Thus, we can eliminate a couple of ideas for the meaning of “crack.” It has nothing to do with the deadly derivative of cocaine. And it’s independent of a plumber’s need for a longer shirt.
But what of “crack” history?
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, devotes two pages to “crack,” the noun, verb and adjective. It notes, “orig. An imitation of the sharp sound caused by the sudden breaking of anything solid.” And, indeed, many uses of the word relate to this. Others, “the crack of dawn,” for instance, are poetic, rather than prosaic.
Rather far down, item 11 in its definition, the OED cites the word’s use for “a rogue; a lively lad” and quotes Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene 3: “When he was a Crack, thus not high….” By 1676, usage had broadened and degenerated to include a “woman of broken repute.”
The OED says it wasn’t until 1807 that the term “crack” extended its original status-breaking sense to something or someone “pre-eminent, superexcellent, ‘first-class.’ ” We encounter this today in a phrase such as “crack shot.”
Eric Partridge’s compendium of colloquialisms, catch phrases, solecisms, catachresis, nicknames, vulgarisms and Americanisms gives a half-page to “crack.” He traces the original noun, c. 17th-18th centuries, as being an abbreviation for “crack-brained,” a person of broken mental capabilities.
However, Partridge also cites a parallel meaning of great excellence: a crack of a racehorse, for example, in the mid-1800s. He says “crack” can describe “Any person or thing—though very rarely the latter in C. 20—that approaches perfection.” Evidently this is what The San Francisco Call had in mind with its 1911 description of actress Beatrice d’Essling.
Not that I was phishing for complimentary descriptions of Miss d’Essling, but in the interest of completeness I consulted my Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo, 1950. It listed a familiar collection of “cracks,” including “Any pointed verbal thrust of a sarcastic or insulting nature.” Its example offered is priceless: “Nix the cracks. There’s a hip gee at your pratt.”
Another source consulted is The American Thesaurus of Slang: A Complete Reference Book of Colloquial Speech. As with other thesauri (there’s a nickel word for you), the words are not arranged alphabetically, but by concept: General Relations, Space, Inanimate Existence, Animate Existence and Personal Characteristics and Activities.
This source shows “crack” sprinkling itself 48 times through the English language as a synonym for one thing or another. About an eighth of these are nouns describing a superlative or admirable person, so The San Francisco Call’s and Miss d’Essling’s virtues are intact.
Another use new to me is “to crack on,” meaning to tattle-tale on someone. Several other uses, rudely enough, are female-specific and perhaps only locker room talk for utterly boorish sorts. Given this source’s vintage, 1948, there’s no mention of cocaine abuse or plumber’s problems. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017
Many of my UK friends use the term “crack on” to mean “get on with it” or “get back to what you were doing”.