Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What Is the Origin of 'To Come a Cropper'?

A small car half submerged in a pond
Car pooling ... it's not always good for the environment
(photo by Esther Simpson)


Noun. Colloquial. Mid-19th century.
[perhaps from neck and crop.]

A heavy fall;
figuratively a severe misfortune, personal failure, etc.

come a cropper fall heavily; be ruined, suffer sudden misfortune.

If you've ever been told by an English speaker that so-and-so came a cropper, then you may justly have wondered at the origins of this bizarre idiom. And if you asked the aforementioned English speaker, you were likely given a blank look, for very few of us know. So, this is it: what is the origin of coming a cropper?

The short, frustratingly unsatisfactory answer is that it's not known for sure. Indeed, investigation quickly leads to the similarly abstruse English idiom from which it perhaps originated: neck and crop. The difference between coming a cropper and neck and crop, however, it that very few English speakers use neck and crop anymore. However, as it's perhaps the origin of our target phrase, what does it mean and what is its origin?

For something to happen neck and crop means for it to happen completely, perhaps violently. So, for example, if a team was beaten neck and crop, they were (to use other expressions) soundly thrashed, given a hiding, a drubbing, etc, etc. It's total, complete, and rather ignominious. This is what neck and crop means, but where is it from?

Oh dear, for now we've come a cropper in our investigations because, again, no one knows for certain. However, there are theories, the most likely being that this is horse riding term, with crop being a variation of croup, the rump of a horse. Therefore, if a horse fell neck and crop, it (somehow) managed to land on both its neck and hindquarters at the same time. This, as any self-respecting horse will tell you, is not a dignified position for a mount, and to illustrate the ignominy of falling neck and crop, I have included a video of a hapless Irishman coming a cropper on the national news. Pre-shame on you for sniggering ...

No horses were harmed in the making of this video

Have you ever come a cropper?

Do please stick your neck out and leave a comment in the box below.


  1. Another theory is that "to come a cropper" dates back to the days when a long handled scythe was used to cut the wheat or barley crop. This scythe was swung in a large arc at just above ground height such that any other worker in the field who strayed within a radius of six feet of the scyther "came a cropper". i.e. fell heavily and disappeared in the crop; was ruined for life (no feet), having suffered this sudden and irreversible misfortune.

    1. Hmm. An interesting theory, though not one I came across in any of the references I checked.

      Still, none of these theories go any way to explaining just how bizarre it is. "To come a cropper ..." "To come a cropper ..." It gets weirder the more you say it.

    2. I like the second one. Easier to explain, so survives Occam's razor.

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