This idiom means “best of the best,” but I never thought about it not making any frigging sense until I looked it up. Crops do not produce cream, so wtf.
The expression was originally simply “cream,” as in, an executive being “the cream of the business world.” As cream will rise to the top of whole milk, the word was also used metaphorically to describe a person who rose to prominence within a given field of endeavor.
The “crop” addition dates back to at least the 1890s, and originally had to do with literal crops. From an 1891 issue of the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1):
"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."
Today “cream of the crop” is often used when referring to groups which occur cyclically - graduating students, new political candidates. The “crop” business is metaphorically appropriate in these cases, as an influx of new people could be considered a crop, but it’s also used in plenty of other situations where it makes markedly less metaphorical sense. But it’s alliterative, so news anchors and things love to say that shit.
Diana Ross (by the way, the writeup there kinda blows if anyone wants to do a better job) and the Supremes also released an album with this title in 1969. I know nothing about it but here’s the track listing:
- Someday We'll Be Together
- Can't You See It's Me
- You Gave Me Love
- Hey Jude
- The Young Folks
- Shadows of Society
- Loving You is Better Than Ever
- When It's to the Top (Still I Won't Stop Giving You Love)
- Till Johnny Comes
- Blowin' in the Wind
- The Beginning of the End
This writeup was easy. For about a million other ideas, please see my scratchpad.