SAMUEL Pepys spelt it "chrony" with an "h" to give it a Greek flavour (chronos being the Greek for time) but crony may have nothing to do with how long friends have known each other, nor has it any connection with crones. It was more likely just one of those schoolboy or undergraduate words that spring up fully formed, as if they have always been around, with not much etymological justification for them.

And when Pepys used it, crony was a nice word, evocative of loyalty and laughter and the love of friends, which it was till quite recently. But now it has been poisoned by envy and malice, and we are not being nice to Mr Blair when we talk about "Tony's cronies" who are believed to have got themselves into places where they ought not to be. As Milton said of the priests and the presbyters, "they creep and intrude, and climb into the fold".

So now we hardly dare call our friends cronies, in case people start complaining about the favours we must be giving each other, and the mutual scratching of backs. An acquaintance of the late Tiny Rowland was quoted last week suggesting that Lonrho was "like a medieval court run by Tiny's cronies". Enough said.

The change for the worse originated in the United States where, in 1952, the New York Times was drawing attention to the Truman regime's "sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste and confusion". Cronyism, too, had until then been a perfectly wholesome word. But now it was a disease, like botulism, or a painful condition, rheumatism say. It was not one of those -isms that reflect a philosophy, a policy or an ideal, as held by socialists and Methodists and bimetallists. So far as I know, the word cronyist has yet to be coined, but it can't be long now; and it won't be a nice one.

If it hadn't been for this -ism, and the hostile spin put on it by American journalists, the word crony might well have survived and held its head up in respectable company, but there is no hope for it now. The later word (crony is from the 17th century, cronyism from the 19th) has succeeded in totally infecting the earlier one.