June 8, 2001
David Levin wrote:
I have three questions about this semantically ill-formed cliché. I say ill-formed because, obviously, crops don't yield cream, milk does. The natural relationship of words yields to alliterative fancy.... Thus the questions: (1) Did this expression begin life somewhat differently? (2) Did crop or cream once have other meanings that would lead to their association? (3) If the expression is purely alliterative, can you find other examples where sound joins logically unrelated elements?
Remember, language isn't static. Over time, the meanings of evocative terms tend to extend from the literal to the metaphorical, and from there, very often to a frozen expression. So it is with cream. At least in lactose-tolerant regions of the world, where milk is a significant food source even for adults, the cream has probably been looked upon since prehistory as the richest, sweetest, choicest part; the part that rises to the top; the milkiest part of the milk; its very essence. As a luxurious and highly desirable food, skimmed from the milk to be relished alone, whipped, or made into butter, it easily provided a ready and clear metaphor for 'the best' or 'the quintessential representative' of anything.
The OED cites examples of cream in this metaphorical sense as far back as 1581 ("The gentlemen, which be the creame of the common"), and the term is still often used in reference to people. Just within the last week, newspapers as far flung as Hong Kong, Dublin, Dallas, and Ottawa have referred to "the cream of the law graduates," "the cream of British and Irish rugby," "the cream of Lone Star songwriters," and "the cream of the zydeco performing world." But the cream can be the best of anything. In 1867, one James Parton wrote of a prominent entrepreneur, "he was never absent from his post by day, and he soon had the cream of the boating business of the port." In 1890 the Saturday Review informed its readers, "Flight-shooting at duck is the very cream of wild-fowl shooting." And last month a Merrill Lynch analyst was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on the bright economic prospects for energy traders in California's electricity crisis: "'Hot weather,' he chirped, 'could be the cream on the top.'"
The metaphor is so productive that people can't seem to resist elaborating on it by playing with familiar properties and uses of cream. Here's Charles Dickens squeezing the most out of it in The Old Curiosity Shop: "'How's Dick?' retorted Quilp. 'How's the cream of clerkship, eh?' 'Why, rather sour, sir,' replied Mr Swiveller. 'Beginning to border upon cheesiness, in fact.'" In a more modern vein, clearly lacking the Dickensian flair, we have: "The deal stacks up financially, so any synergies are cream on the cake" (Financial Times, 2001). And the late golfer Payne Stewart is said to have remarked after a disappointing loss, "On a good golf course, the cream usually comes right up to the top. I curdled." (Columbus Dispatch, 2001.)
In light of such well-established usage, cream of the crop meaning 'best of the crop' is perfectly logical, and the phrase most likely originated in reference to actual crops, as in this from the October 1891 issue of the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine: "The great and unfailing demand that the canneries have made for California fruit has been largely a moving cause of this change from wheat fields to orchards, for the canneries take the very cream of the crop." You're right in thinking that alliteration gave it staying power, and ultimately it became a metaphor of its own--albeit a mixed metaphor--often replacing cream: "This is the team I know and love--the one that comes out on top, the cream of the crop'' (United Press International, 1980).
The phrase is especially appropriate for groups that come in cycles--graduates, freshmen, inductees, political candidates, etc.: "The cream of the college crop is always just around the corner" (San Francisco Chronicle, 2001). And as with cream alone, it lends itself to endless elaboration. Since its distinctive feature is alliteration, we have extensions like "cream of the comedy crop" (Irish Times, 2001) and "cream of the culinary crop" (Orlando Sentinel, 2001). Some extensions tie in nicely with its agricultural associations; in reference to the Florida Marlins' prospects in last Tuesday's baseball draft, we read, "Where we're picking, you can't expect to get the cream of the crop." (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 2001). Others abandon all semblance of consistency and mix the metaphor beyond repair: "Politicians must be the cream of the crop and today we have the bottom scum" (Toronto Star, 2001). Of course, in a liquid, the scum forms not at the bottom but at the top--the same as cream. But in a crop of politicians, who knows!
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