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”).