Crap has to be one of the best four-letter words to etymologise. And trust me, I have looked up most of them. It’s really quite entertaining. While the origin of crap might be completely unknown to most people, there is a relatively popular folk etymology, one which I also used to believe to be true. So the story has it, the term comes from a certain plumber named Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) whose name was transferred to his invention: the toilet. From there, crapper, meaning ‘toilet’, was clipped to crap, meaning ‘faeces’.
Although this makes for a nice story, unfortunately, it seems to be incorrect. The OED find two examples of crap being used to refer to defecation in 1846: ‘”Fenced in a dunninken” … “What? Fenced in a crapping ken?”’ and ‘Which of us had hold of the crappy (sh-ten) end of the stick?’. In 1846, Crapper was only nine years old. What’s more, Crapper didn’t actually invent the toilet itself but a mechanism for flushing called the ballcock, and he generally increased the toilet’s popularity.
So where does crap come from? Well, in reality, it’s a very old word found in Middle English at the latest (the first known example coming from around 1425). It came from Medieval Latin through Old French and originally meant ‘chaff’ and then went on to meant ‘discarded waste’ or ‘residue’.
While I think this explanation is more plausible, some people still think Crapper’s claim to linguistic fame is valid and maybe he did help to popularise the term. Either way, it’s something to think about next time you come across a product by Thomas Crapper & Co.