Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Crack the Door

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2009

My first understanding of "crack the door"Sometimes at night, my wife will want to make sure that Doug and Adam aren’t woken up by the noise coming from our bedroom, so she’ll have me shut the door. We don’t want one of the boys walking in on us when we’re busy watching a movie or some of those TV shows I mentioned in my last post.

Still, she doesn’t want the door completely shut: She wants to be able to hear if Doug or Adam has any trouble, and of course the cats need to be able to wander in and out. Here’s where it gets strange. When she makes her request, she asks me to “crack the door” — when the door is already wide open.

I long ago got used to the idiom crack the door/window meaning “open it just a crack”, and not “damage it by putting a crack in it”. The OED has this as chiefly a US usage, with the earliest attestation from 1899. But in my English, you can only crack doors and windows that are shut, not ones that are open. The crack has to be the appearance of a gap, not the narrowing of an existing one. So who else out there can crack doors and windows that are already open?

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9 Responses to “Crack the Door”

  1. Josh said

    Bizarro Superman!

  2. Jonathon said

    That definitely sounds strange to me. I can only crack things that are already closed or unbroken. I’d have to say “Leave it open a crack” to get that meaning.

  3. David W said

    Growing up in England I never heard anyone say “crack the door”, but people might say “open the door just a crack”. I, like you, have always assumed that (in the US) “crack the door” means “open the door very slightly”, and that this phrase can only be applied to a closed, or almost closed, door. If we assume that this was the original meaning, then the reanalysis as “leave the door so that it is open very slightly” (regardless of its original state) seems pretty straightforward. It shifts the meaning from the process itself to the result of that process. There must be other examples of this semantic shift in English, but I can’t think of any right now. Perhaps “work” originally meant “labor” and subsequently extended to meanings such as “work of art”.

  4. kip said

    But in my English, you can only crack doors and windows that are shut, not ones that are open.

    My wife had a roommate in college who told her to “push the door to.” What she meant was to push the open door almost shut, leaving a small gap. I’ve never heard anyone else use that phrase. To me, it sounds like a sentence fragment (“push the door to what?”).

  5. David W said

    @Kip: “push the door to” is common in England.

    • kip said

      @David: weird, this girl was definitely not British. She was from Eastern North Carolina, I think. Maybe a parent or grandparent was British somewhere.

  6. The Ridger said

    Aha! I’m from Tennessee, and “push the door to” sounds absolutely normal to me.

    But “crack the door” can only mean it is now shut.

  7. I’ve never heard the phrase (I live in Ireland) but the idea it brings up in my mind is in fact that of a door that’s closed and is to be opened a little. It sounds incompatible with a door that’s already open. The question is, why?

  8. I’m from Arkansas and have lived in Canada 10 years. I agree that “crack the door” can only apply to closed doors. Otherwise, I would say, “Leave the door open a crack.”

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