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What Is a ‘Crony’?

It used to be a good thing to call someone a crony, but it's usually not anymore. 

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

The root of "crony" means time, and a crony used to be just an old friend, but in the 1940s, the word took on a sense of corruption.

You know how words start to sound weird to you? Like you start doubting yourself and start thinking, “Is that even a word?” Well, I’ve been hearing the word “crony” a lot lately, and it started to sound weird to me; so out of curiosity, I looked it up and thought it had an especially interesting origin, so I want to share it with you.

What is the origin of the word ‘crony’?

According to Merriam-Webster, the root of the word “crony” is the Greek word “chronos,” which means “time.” 

The same root gives us the words 

  • “chronology” (the order of things in time)
  • “chronic” (something that lasts a long time or is with you continuously like a chronic disease)
  • "synchronous" (happening at the same time)
  • “anachronism” (something that isn’t right for its time, like a cell phone in a movie that’s supposed to be set in the 1950s)

What does ‘crony’ mean?

A crony is someone you’ve been friends with or have known for a long time, and it appears to have been a slang term used by British university students and alumni to describe their old chums. 

Who first used the word ‘crony’?

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from the famous 17th century diarist who I’ve mentioned before, Samuel Pepys, who was a student at Cambridge. He referred to another man as “my old Schoolefellow…who was a great crony of mine.”

When did being a ‘crony’ become a bad thing?

Today, “crony” often has a negative connotation, but all the examples in the OED use it in a good way, just to describe old friends. So I wanted to see when having cronies became a bad thing.

The negative meaning emerged in the United States in the early 1940s to describe the Truman administration. 

According to the book “Throw Them All Out” by Peter Schweizer, in 1946 Arthur Krock wrote in the “New York Times” about President Truman’s connections to the Kansas City political machine saying, “the Missouri flavor is strong around the White House itself . . . and this has led to talk of government by crony.” 

Another journalist, Walter Lippmann, used the word “cronyism” in the “New York Times,” again to describe the Truman administration, in 1952 bemoaning, “the amount of politically entrenched bureaucracy that has earned Mr. Truman’s regime its sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste and confusion.” And you can really see the word "cronyism" take off in use after that date. It did also catch on in British English, but it seemed to take a few decades, starting to rise in the 1980s.

a Google ngram chart showing the rising use of the word cronyism

What is crony capitalism?

Also in the 1980s, people started talking about “crony capitalism.” which is a form of corruption in which the government shows a lot of favoritism by determining which businesses get perks like tax breaks and permits. The magazine “The Economist” even created a crony capitalism index in 2014 to rank countries according to how much of this type of corruption they have. (Note: I can’t find any indication that “The Economist” published this index after 2016.)

How do people use the word ‘crony’?

To see more about how people use the word ‘crony,’ I used a search engine called Netspeak that helps you find words that appear together, and it shows that one of the most common phrases is “old crony,” and that makes sense since often a crony is a buddy or friend from when you were in school or at least someone you’ve known for a long time. 

a chart showing how crony is used

 And it also shows that the word is now common in the political realm because other common phrases are “Bush crony,” “Clinton crony” and “political crony.” (I suspect this database doesn’t include text from the last decade or we’d see the names of other major politicians too.)

In a further extension from corruption to outright criminal activity, you also occasionally see people use the word “cronies” to describe partners in crime or accomplices. For example, in 2019, there was an article in “The Telegraph” with the headline “My brief but terrifying encounter with Pablo Escobar’s cronies.”

Is ‘crony’ related to ‘crone’?

Finally, the phrase “old crony” made me think of the phrase “old crone,” and I wondered whether “crone” has the same root since it refers to an old woman, but nope—it doesn’t. 

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary must have wondered the same thing because the etymology for “crony” actually says “No connection with ‘crone’ has been traced.” 

Instead, according to Etymonline, “crone” comes from the same root as “carrion,” which in Old French was also used to describe an old sheep.

Context matters when using the word ‘crony’

A crony was originally an old friend, but the word came to mean someone who gets favors because of who they know instead of becoming successful on their own merits, and the change in meaning seems to be tied to criticism of United States president Harry Truman and his administration. 

You can still use the word “crony” to simply describe an old friend, especially someone you hung out with a lot when you were young or in school. For example, you might say, “I’m not going home for Thanksgiving this year, and I am going to miss seeing all my old high school cronies.” But be sure the context makes your meaning clear since “crony” can also be used to describe people who don’t deserve their position or status. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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