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There’s crack up, crack down, and crack on (?). I am curious about the origin of the phrase crack down. Also, what does it literally mean?

3 Answers 3

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From http://www.etymonline.com:

  • crackdown (n)
    also crack down; 1935, from the verbal phrase (1915), from crack (v.) + down (adv.); probably from the sense of "to shoot at" (1913).

Of course now we need the etymology of crack:

  • crack (v.)
    Old English cracian "make a sharp noise," from Proto-Germanic *krakojan (cognates: Middle Dutch craken, Dutch kraken, German krachen), probably imitative. Related: Cracked; cracking. From early 14c. as "to utter, say, speak, talk," especially "speak loudly or boastingly" (late 14c.). To crack a smile is from 1835, American English; to crack the whip in the figurative sense is from 1886.

  • crack (n.)
    "a split, an opening," mid-15c., earlier "a splitting sound; a fart; the sound of a trumpet" (late 14c.), probably from crack (v.). Meaning "rock cocaine" is first attested 1985. The superstition that it is bad luck to step on sidewalk cracks has been traced to c.1890. Meaning "try, attempt" first attested 1830, nautical, probably a hunting metaphor, from slang sense of "fire a gun."

From the action of making a cracking sound we get the various associations. When you crack down on something you are shooting it down as if with a gun that makes the cracking sound when fired.

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The image comes to mind of a slave-driver cracking a whip down at the feet of a slave to induce, through fear, a particular behavior or quality of behavior. Use in other contexts is by analogy to the slavery model.

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  • This is close to what comes to my mind as well. We know "cracking down" on something, in modern times, is often associated with getting results, where the same could be said for most outcomes from, and the use of a whip when cracking it at something, be it a horse, or some other beast of burden.
    – Volte
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 17:05
  • Evidence though? This seems like a myth.
    – djechlin
    Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 16:34
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Ngram viewer suggests it was first written as one word, in a book around 1898 to 1905

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