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Crack shot

Q From Mark Brown, US: Where did the term “crack shot” originate?

A The short answer to your question is England, but I suspect that may leave you feeling a bit short-changed. Fortunately I can supply some more on the whys, hows and whens of the term as well as the wheres.

The obvious first guess is that it’s an imitative word for the noise made by a pistol or rifle. Unlike most first guesses in etymology that’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not the whole story.

Around 1500, crack is recorded as a Scots term for loud boasts or brags, which in the following century became much more widely known in England. After it spread south it started to mean the subject of a person’s boast, something that was claimed to be first-class or excellent. This might be a preeminent flock of sheep, the best room in a hotel or a person who was a superbly accurate shot. This last sense appeared at the very beginning of the nineteenth century in a long-forgotten comic playlet that featured a duel:

That’s my friend — you subpoenaed him to attend. I’m dashing Bob, his second, — a crack shot and a crack whip. Take your ground, Colonel.

Modern Sharpers, by an unknown author, in Flowers of Literature For 1804, London, 1805.

However, the term is presumably older in speech. It was taken to the New World by colonists and is first recorded there in the 1820s.

What makes the word particularly relevant to pistols at dawn is that the boasting sense of crack derives from Old English cracian, to make a sudden sharp noise. It is indeed the same word as the one for the noise a gun might make. It’s also where we get cracking from, in the sense of something very impressive or effective (“it was a cracking good film”).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Aug. 2013

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Last modified: 31 August 2013.