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What does "Crop up" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom “crop up” is used to indicate that something has appeared suddenly and unexpectedly. You may also hear people say that something has “come up,” which has a similar meaning. The idiom has been used in this sense since at least the 1800s, and evidence seems to suggest that it may be even older, with the earliest dated references to cropping up appearing in the 1600s.

Although the term "crop" is associated with plants by many modern English speakers, the origins of this word reference the original meaning of "crop," a swelling or protuberance. Originally, this term was an entry in the geological lexicon. Geologists would say that something was “cropping up” in the literal sense, as in an outcrop of rock. Rocks do periodically crop up very suddenly as the landscape erodes or is rearranged by an earthquake, and outcrops are especially common in mines, where miners find harder rocks backing softer materials.

There are some intriguing alternate suggestions for the origins of “crop up.” Some people have suggested, for example, that the term is a reference to crops which volunteer where they are not planted, as in “some potatoes cropped up in the carrot patch.” Others have claimed that the term refers to the small stones, roots, and other debris which would come up during spring plowing, when farmers prepared the land for planting. However, etymologists strongly believe that the term started in geology.

As some publications from the late 17th and early 18th century suggest, the idiom was quickly adopted in a metaphorical sense, with people talking about situations and events which had “cropped up” exactly like outcrops of rock. The first written instance of “crop up” in this sense occurred in the 1800s, cementing the idiom in the English language.

There are a number of ways to use this idiom. For example, one might say “something has cropped up at work, and I will need to stay late,” using the idiom to suggest that an unexpected event has forced a chance of plans. This idiom is sometimes used when someone is making excuses for not doing something, and it has acquired a somewhat suspect meaning for some people, with “crop up” being taken as a euphemism for “I didn't feel like following through on the plan.” One might also say “more students crop up in the literature program every year,” referencing the idea that this term refers to new appearances.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Monika — On Jun 09, 2011

@Anna32 - When I was younger my mother had something similar happen in her garden! My mom is really into organic produce and recycling so it was no surprise to me one year when she started a compost pile.

It was a surprise to her when things started "cropping up" from the compost pile. We had watermelons, potatoes, and tomatoes from the compost pile that year. The next year we moved the compost pile to another spot in the garden and called it our own "organic crop rotation".

Unfortunately we never got any more plants out of the compost pile. It sure was a nice surprise that year though!

By Anna32 — On Jun 09, 2011

Well I am just in shock that the crop up definition originated with geological terms. I always thought it was a literal term originating with agriculture that people used to describe things coming up as crops do. The whole rock thing is fascinating to me.

I know last season, my mom had some watermelon plants to volunteer themselves out of nowhere and we said they cropped up. As far as rocks doing something similar, however, I had no idea. Intriguing!

By Bailey1989 — On Jun 09, 2011

I agree that the English language and its idioms can be confusing. If a person were to look up the meanings of the words in the free online dictionary, I can see where the use of the words together would make little sense. Such is the way of our language, however. There's a reason they say English is one of the hardest secondary languages to learn.

By cupcake15 — On Jun 09, 2011

@SurfNTurf - I agree with you. My mother would was a Cuban immigrant and would always takes these idioms literally and would not understand the meaning behind them.

It was really funny. For example, she could not understand what, “Chew the fat” meant. I had to tell her that it was basically having a conversation. She would always say, “Then why don’t they say that?”

By surfNturf — On Jun 09, 2011

I think that idiom meanings must be really confusing to people learning English. When we say that someone just cropped up, we mean that they just showed up unexpectedly. It is very different than the literal meaning of the word crop which refers to agriculture and farming.

It is just like when someone in show business says to someone else about to perform, “Break a leg”. It must sound funny to someone unfamiliar with these American idioms because they don’t understand that this means good luck.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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