Each week, language enthusiast Steven Poole dissects the origins and meaning of the words of the moment.
Last week “It’s all about chums, not crones: a short history of cronyism”.
Samuel Pepys had one. Today’s government ministers seem to have lots. But what is a crony?
British ministers have been accused of “cronyism” simply for awarding lucrative contracts to companies owned by friends or siblings just as John Major had “sleaze” and David Cameron presided over a “chumocracy”. But where do cronies come from?
All we know is that it is 17th-century in origin, and probably university slang for dear friend. (“No connection with ‘crone’ has been traced,” the OED warns.) The first print citation is from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663), where Orsin grieves the loss of his “dear Crony Bear”, which was an actual bear. A couple of years later Samuel Pepys refers in his diary to an old schoolfriend “who was a great crony of mine”.
The political sense of “cronyism” arose in the 1950s, when President Truman was accused of appointing his friends to government posts, but when it was first coined in the mid-19th century, it could be a neutral or even positive word, meaning a love of one’s friends. It might seem startlingly prescient of Walter de La Mare to have written in 1922 of “Johnson’s oddities, his queer habits, his cronyism, his truculence, his wit, his frailties”, but he was speaking of the great Samuel.
But where are the West Lancashire cronies? Who are they? WLBC and developers? WLBC and Serco? Planners and utilities? Not friends of taxpayers, that’s for sure!
- Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus