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Cracking wise: A word with so many meanings

Michigan Radio

Cracking up is funny, except when it involves going completely to pieces, but cracking down often isn't funny at all. 

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan hadn't really deeply pondered the many meanings of the word "crack," until Rina Miller mentioned getting a chuckle from a road department's press release about crack sealing, prompting the predictable plumber's butt joke.

What Curzan discovered is that the word goes back to old English, starting as a verb. 

"When I went through the Oxford English Dictionary, I thought about how hard this entry must have been to do," Curzan says. "There are so many meanings of 'crack,' and trying to differentiate which meanings come from the sound, and which meanings come from the action of breaking something seem to be an almost impossible task."

The OED also lists "crack down," meaning to repress or suppress something. 

"It also links it to the meaning of uttering something, maybe briskly," Curzan says. "So you used to be able to crack a boast, now we typically crack a joke."

Crack can also mean praise, as in a "crack mechanic."

"So you've got the adjective meaning that someone is excellent. That goes back to the 17th century," Curzan says. 

"We also have cracks in the sidewalk, we can crack a code. You can break something to pieces, or you can something with a crack in it. You can crack a door, we can get cracking, and we can crack up when we laugh."

And don't forget about the wisecracks. 


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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