"There's a lot of work to be done, so we'd better get crackin'"
I've often used this expression, but I have no idea what we might have been cracking, originally? Any insight?
Dictionary coverage of 'get cracking'
J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) reports that "get cracking" came into U.S. English from the UK during the 1940s:
Lighter's first citation for the phrase is from Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936), as "Get cracking, begin work."
It appears to have caught on as a naturalized phrase fairly quickly, however, since it appears in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960):
The entry for "get cracking" in the original edition of Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936) is actually a bit more detailed than Lighter's citation suggests:
Earlier in the same dictionary, Partridge has this entry for cracking as an adjective:
By the fifth edition (1961) of the dictionary, however, Partridge had evidently rethought the place of "get cracking" in the larger scheme of similar phrases and had adopted the entry that ghoppe reports in a different answer here, with the suggestion that it might have its origin in "whip-cracking at the mustering of cattle."
Early Google Books matches
Google Search results generally support Partridge's1936 reading of the phrase. The earliest relevant matches are from 1938, and one of them is RAF-specific. From Popular Flying, volume 6, issue 9 (1938) [combined snippets]:
There is, however, one outlying instance of "got cracking"—or more precisely "got cracking away"—that might be significant s well. From Bertram Milford, In the Whirl of the Rising (1904), a novel seemingly set in Rhodesia during the Second Matabele War, of 1896–1897:
Here it seems pretty clear that "got cracking away" means "started firing our guns." Is this usage connected to the later World War II use of "get cracking"? It's difficult to say. If there is a connection, the literal slang term for gunfire would have to have transmuted into a more figurative sense of getting started. Still, both usages have a strong tie to military usage, and a connection is not impossible.
No reference work has convincingly tracked "get cracking" to its original lair. The term does seem to be of UK English origin, but whether it originated in the RAF in 1925, or in Rhodesia in the late 1890s, or in some bucolic setting to the sound of bullwhips bring cattle into order for transportation or migration remains unclear.
I always though this was related to the cracking of a whip; either to make a horse run faster or to drive cattle etc.
I think the precise origin will probably always be shrouded in mystery, but this Ngrams graph implies it derives from the earlier British usage Crack on.
I realise Ngrams will have included many spurious occurrences of both phrases (for example, references to a crack on a surface). But this 1764 usage is obviously idiomatic, so we can safely say Crack on was current by then. I can't find any explicit use of Get cracking until at least a hundred years later.
I suggest the basic metaphor being invoked is that in many contexts, a crack is the first stage of a wider split; starting a major task might imply you need to make a small dent or crack in it first. Also, of course, you can't make an omelette without breaking (cracking) eggs.
With John Boag's 1848 Popular and Complete English Dictionary having one definition of cracking to be "conversing familiarly," the last sentence of the above clip can be translated, "The children of that time couldn't have sat chatting about this around the fire."
This use of cracking is related to the phrase to crack a joke, but I'm not sure it's related to the "get to work" meaning of get cracking. Just thought this early appearance was interesting. For more theories on the modern meaning check out the thread on the phrase at Wordwizard.
After looking at the earliest google n-grams of usage of the phrase, (discounting the 1849 passage which clearly uses "cracking" in the sense of talking/gossiping/boasting) I had a hunch it had its origins in military jargon. A little more searching found this:
According to the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:
It is a Crypt gang term to shoot to kill. Hip hop has made it popular because of their appeal to gangs. They inside lingo makes them secretly laugh at the ignorance of those using it in our culture so prominently today. I am a former teacher in a juvenile correctional facility and this came out in our gang training.
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