Fall between the cracks

Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: I’m being accused of overanalyzing this, but the idea that anything can “fall between the cracks” just doesn’t make sense to me. I picture two parallel cracks. Wouldn’t the space between them be the surface? Please help me make sense of this. — Jane Francis.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when literally idioms we perceive, or something. I’d turn back if I were you. Deconstructing English idioms is right up there with squaring the circle and explaining Ben Stiller’s career as lose-lose endeavors. That way madness lies. Google “Unabomber” and “Eat your cake and have it too” for an example of how wrong this sort of thing can go.

As the American Heritage Dictionary defines it, an “idiom” is “a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.” In other words, hang it up. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a figure of speech.

Some idioms mean just what they say (“to take it in stride,” for instance, meaning to endure something and keep going). But some mean nearly the opposite of what they seem to say. For instance, we speak of falling “head over heels” in love with someone, meaning that our life is profoundly transformed by the experience. But most of us, having mastered bipedal locomotion at an early age, already spend our days with our heads above our heels, don’t we? It’s true that the phrase was originally, back in the 14th century, “heels over head,” which better conveys the sense of being “turned upside down” by love. But when a few popular writers (including Davy Crockett) accidentally reversed the phrase in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rest of us just decided to go along with “head over heels.” No sense? No problem.

It’s hard to say just where and when “fall between the cracks” jumped the rails of literal sense, but you’re right that it lacks logic. My guess is that the current illogical form came from a blending of the established metaphors “fall through the cracks” (as small objects might fall through the gaps between floorboards) and “fall between the stools” (to not fit in either of two categories, by analogy to bar stools).

In any case, “fall between the cracks” seems to have graduated to being an accepted idiom, and recently popped up in the august Christian Science Monitor (“News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks, abused by parents or neglected by social welfare agencies,” March 11, 2008). If the Monitor’s copy editors don’t have a problem with it, I guess “fall between the cracks” is here to stay.

13 comments on this post.
  1. Bill McCray:

    Our preacher used “fall between the cracks” during last Sunday’s sermon and triggered my thinking about the phrase. This led me to the Web and your column. Thank you for dealing with the phrase, but what a coincidence that your column followed so closely to what triggered my thinking about it. It is unlikely that this was asked by someone else who heard the same sermon, since it was just two days before the column. Now I’m going to have to subscribe.

  2. Karen Martinez:

    Walking to the door, just only minutes before I write this, with the thanksgiving basket kindly given me just this morning I spotted a small package of seeds that the wind had blown from, well only God knows where. I picked it up. Zinnia seeds, probably, I thought, probably planted in the spring; but as the thought took my mind a few still left in that packet fell to the ground. I stooped to pick up my Thanksgiving basket which I’d set down upon the step when, from that packet I spotted one tiny feathery seed. It had fallen between the cracks. Just like me.

    In the spring I shall plant it. It did harm to none. It did not break the conventions of law or men. It just fell between the cracks. Just like me.

    So if you happen to see on a summer’s day a single Zinnia swaying in the breeze its just its way of thanking God. It’s God that makes your eyes to see, and it’s God that unfolds your hands in prayer and reaches out to plant a seed. If its beauty you see its because God put it there. Just like me.

  3. Partha:

    I agree many idioms don’t make literal sense, but this one isn’t one of them. The thing becomes obvious, very obvious, when you think of a LIQUID disappearing between the cracks. Think of a liquid, not a solid body, and immediately the idiom suddenly starts making extremely good sense, intuitively and literally, doesn’t it? After that, of course, to metaphorically use this to mean other things, including solids, even abstract things, shouldn’t take too much imagination.

  4. Kaler:

    Thank you for dealing with the phrase, but what a coincidence that your column followed so closely to what triggered my thinking about it.

    very tks.

  5. micael:

    and the other day i saw a homeless person sleeping in front of a bank branch and I said to myself, it was God who put him there, it was God who unravelled his life, it was God knows where that somebody decided to push religion everywhere all the time even if it has nothing to do with it, God simply fell between the cracks of somebody’s carium and penetrated their brains..

  6. micael:

    should say somebody’s cranium

  7. Kait:

    Hmmmm. I have heard the “fall through the cracks” idiom all my life. Well what I can remember of the 41 years of it. I am don’t really recall the early years all that well. Is this a idiom that has not been used in the USA, but has in Canada, where I am? We have many British, Irish and Scottish sayings that have influenced our speech and writings. Mayhap it came from the UK?

  8. Bob:

    It is an irrational expression and should be retired. Fall into the cracks is fine. Disagree with Word Detective that it is picky to want what you say to make sense.

  9. Amber:

    I may be misreading but what you said still makes no sense. If it falls between the cracks, it is on a solid surface and therefore not forgotten or overlooked as the saying has come to mean. Whether solid, liquid, or abstract, if it falls between the cracks, it’s still between the cracks and visible. I agree with Detective and find the suspected origins interesting. Alas, the saying does not make sense. Nice try though. :)

  10. Debbie:

    It does make sense. Imagine a wooden decks with spaces between the floorboards. Now imagine some crumbs falling onto the desk. Some land on the floorboard and remain there. Some land between the floorboard. These fall through the cracks (i.e., the spaces between the floorboards) onto the ground below.

  11. Partha:

    Hey Amber,

    Love these Internet conversations. There I was, commenting here back in, let’s see, 2008. And then there you went, replying to that comment in 2013. Now here I go again, reading your comment and replying to it in 2015.

    You’re right, what I’d said back then makes no sense to me either when I read it now. I’ve no idea what, if anything, I’d been thinking when I wrote it. No matter whether solid or liquid, or some gooey viscous in-between, slipping THROUGH cracks is fine and logical, but slipping BETWEEN cracks is simply weird (but nevertheless accepted) usage.

  12. sujay:

    Hi there,
    I’d really like to know when that idiom turned up in the English language. Being bilingual (English/German), it reminds me very much of an idiom in German “durch den Rost fallen” (literally: to fall through the grating) which – sadly and shockingly, it being a remnant of the jargon of those horrible years that has survived till today – referres to the ashes of concentration camp victims after being gassed and their bodies burnt. The English wording seems quite similar. So I’m curious. Any thoughts?

  13. Don Akre:

    I believe the saying fall between the cracks comes from the days when houses had hard wood floors and things would fall INTO a crack. I don’t believe the original saying had the word between or through in it.

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