Pears, Croppers and Lead Balloons
When something goes wrong, we have some interesting idioms in English to describe the situation. Let’s look at three of my favourites and the stories behind them.
It ‘s all gone pear-shaped
We say this when a situation has not lived up to our expectations. And a pear is the embodiment of a bottom heavy, unbalanced shape, unlike the spherical form of say, an orange. But where did this expression come from?
As usual with these things, there is more than one story about its origin. Some sources say it came from the art of glass blowing when, if the glass is overheated, the end result is pear-shaped object rather than round.
There is another school of thought that this expression dates back to the the 1940’s and was first heard in in the British airforce. It may have been used to describe a disaster such as a plane crash, but I prefer the other idea in circulation – that it was used to talk about pilots in training who didn’t manage to fly their planes in a perfect loop, a notoriously difficult task. Without the relevant practice, a trainee would produce a pear-shaped effort, rather than an oval or circle. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to this expression as “Royal Airforce slang“ but does not venture any further explanation. If anyone has further evidence, then please let us know….
To come a cropper
We say that someone has come a cropper when they fall, or have failed at something. But what on earth is a cropper?
This British expression derives from the word kropp, an Old Norse word which meant a swollen lump or bump. The logic seems to have been that you had a bump and therefore developed a lump on your injured person. A common cause of falls and subsequent injuries when people actually spoke Old Norse would have been falling from your horse.
By the 16th century, a serious fall from a horse was described as falling neck and crop. Hunting and riding were popular pastimes so the expression came to be used amongst the general poulation, having morphed into “to come a cropper”, to signify someone who had fallen headlong from their steed. The hindquarters of a horse are still known as the croup today.
Over time, the meaning was extended to include suffering a misfortune or failing in some way.
For example, ” The prime minister came a cropper when his lies were dicovered.” (No-one in mind here, honestly).
To go down like a lead balloon
The first two idioms are used in British English, but this one is also used in the States, although the expression is slightly different – ” to go over like a lead balloon.”
Of course, a balloon made of lead is totally impossible as it would not be able to fly. So this phrase is used to describe something that has gone down very badly with its audience.
When this expression first appeared in the States in the 1920’s. it actually went down like a lead balloon itself ….. until it was revived in the 40’s, when it became part of our everyday langauge on both sides of the Atlantic, and is still in use today.
An interesting anecdote about this idiom is that in the 60’s, Keith Moon and John Entwhiste left their band, The Who, to join Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and called themselves Led Zeppelin. The story goes that Keith Moon said, with reference to their departure from The Who, “This is gonna go down like a Lead Zeppelin“. The spelling was changed from Lead to Led to avoid misunderstandings with the pronunciation. They didn’t aspire to be the chief leader, it was just heavy material…..
One thing we can be sure of that Led Zeppellin certainly did not go down like a lead balloon with their intended audience.
So, wishing you all a happy weekend. Hope nothing goes pear-shaped, nobody comes a cropper and nothing goes down like a lead balloon for you.