I was looking at some Christmas crackers today (it’s Christmas), and I realised how the word cracker can be used to refer to very different things. There are Christmas crackers, but then there are also crackers you can eat with cheese, and something that you generally think is great can be described as a cracker).
Before I go any further, I’ve just thought to myself that Christmas crackers aren’t really popular in the United States (I couldn’t even find a picture of one in WordPress’ free-picture library, so I went with the cute dog instead), and as about half of you reading this are from that part of the world, I should explain what they are. They look like this:
They’re usually shared over Christmas dinner, with one person pulling one end while another pulls the other. They’re designed so that one person will end up with the bulk of the cracker as well as its contents (usually a useless little bit of tat like a tiny plastic comb or a spinning top), a bad joke, and a paper crown. Oh, and there’s a little explosive strip inside that produces a bang when the cracker breaks apart. One of the chemicals used is silver fulminate which is banned by the American Transportation Security Administration from being brought onto planes. Maybe that’s why they’re not popular over there.
You can actually get posh ones with good prizes inside, but I don’t think anyone wants those. Even though I assume every time an adult goes to buy Christmas crackers they, like me, ask themselves why bother?, they’re hard to resist. They’re just part of the Christmas tradition, including the disappointment at the tiny measuring tapes and non-functional magic tricks inside. That’s a very European thing I think, and not something I think Americans would really get: Wait, you want to get the crappy things you don’t like?
Anyway, crackers. From the verb/noun crack obviously, which comes through many stages from the Proto-Indo-European *krakojan, generally referring to a loud noise (probably onomatopoeiac. And from that it’s not hard to see where many of its meanings come from. Christmas crackers and party-food crackers both make a loud noise: just don’t bite into a Christmas cracker. A whip cracks. If you see a large crack somewhere, there’s a good chance that a loud sound was involved in its creation.
As always happens, the word began to drift through different meanings, coming to mean to speak boastingly, and from there to generally refer to lively conversation. This is probably where we get cracking as a positive intensifying adverb from, as well as the Irish word craic (originally from Scots and English, imported into the Irish language, then back into Hiberno-English). And wisecrack/to crack wise.
Of course another interesting use of the word cracker is as an American-English pejorative term for a white American (at least I assume I’m exempt from it). There are competing theories on where this comes from. One suggested it originally referred to convicts transported from Britain to Virginia, and the stereotype of their loud, rude way of speaking.
Or, it might have been an abbreviation of corn-cracker, which referred to poor inhabitants of the Southern United States who mainly lived on corn.
Or, it referred to slave-plantation foremen, and the cracking of their whips. Whatever the term’s origins, its continued existence as a somewhat offensive term will probably stop Christmas crackers becoming popular in the United States. Plus you know, the whole explosive inside thing. I mean, if Kinder Surprise is deemed too dangerous for American children…
Anyway, I can’t believe it’s Christmas again. I can’t believe it’s only a year since I was writing about shit twigs in a café in Liège. Whatever you’re doing today, Happy Christmas, have fun, and hopefully some interesting words cross your path!