Stop that this instant!
Dear Word Detective: Federal, state or local governments seem to be always “cracking down” on anything from drug trafficking to parking meter violations. There seems to be no other shorthand way of saying “enforce more strictly.” Why “crack down”? — Jerry in suburban D.C.
Good question. And if “crack down” seems odd to you and me when we really think about it, it must be truly mysterious to folks just learning English, who encounter it in nearly every newscast or newspaper. Google News at the moment sports almost 30,000 results for “crack down,” ranging from “Fresh fatalities as Syrians brave crackdown” to “Vatican crackdown at Rome’s Playboy Mansion-style monastery” (say what?). My favorite “crack down” headlines are the ones like “Police to crack down on speeders on Route 33 north of city Saturday night.” Duly noted. Then again, maybe that’s a clever way to make one press release do the work of ten traffic cops, assuming that speeders read newspapers (unlikely, but maybe worth a shot).
We’re so used to seeing and hearing “crack down” (the verb) and “crackdown” (the noun) used in nearly any context that it’s surprising to note that both forms are very recent inventions, the noun first appearing in print in 1935 and the verb following in 1940. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “crack down” as “to repress, to take strong measures against,” which is certainly true, but misses the current nuance of “enforcing laws or policies strictly that had previously been widely flouted” (“Police plan crackdown on illegal raves in Kent,” BBC News, 5/11). The only other term I can think of that carries this “Now you’re gonna get it” sense is “clamp down,” which the OED defines as “to take strong measures; to become (more) strict; to put a stop to (an undesirable activity, etc.)” (“The government clamped down firmly on all political agitation,” 1952). A “clamp down” is often a bit more bureaucratic and less brutal than a “crackdown,” but the results are similar. Interestingly, “clamp down” in this sense also first appeared surprisingly recently, in the 1940s.
We use “to crack” in dozens of senses today, but when the word first appeared in Old English, drawn from Germanic roots, it meant simply “to make a dry, sharp sound in breaking” or “to break with this characteristic sound” (OED), and “crack” was almost certainly formed in imitation of that “snap” sound. Most uses of “crack” ever since have followed one of those two senses, referring (sometimes quite remotely) to either the sound of something breaking or to the act of breaking itself. Thus when we “crack a joke” or make a snide “crack,” the word reflects the quick, sharp sound of our speech, and to “crack a whip” or “crack one’s knuckles” also invokes this sense of “sharp sound.” But when a detective “cracks a case,” you “crack” a tooth on a nut, or a mad scientist “cracks up,” the point is that something gets broken. There’s also a sense of the verb “to crack” that connotes sudden, sharp action, as in “get cracking” as slang meaning “to begin working immediately” (“Come on, let’s get cracking, we’re late now,” 1949).
The “crack” of “crack down” falls into the “quick, sharp sound” branch of the “crack” family, and is derived from the use of “crack” to mean “strike, slap or smack with a sharp noise,” as an irate schoolteacher might once have “cracked” students’ knuckles with a ruler or a riot squad might “crack” protesters “over the head” with nightsticks (“I should like to crack you over the head with a bottle,” 1936). It is this sense of “sudden slapping or beating down” that underlies both the verb “to crack down” and the noun “crackdown.”