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Reader Offers a Clever 'Why's Crack?'

Rob Kyff on

Q: Why is the adjective "crack" used to describe someone who's good at something, as in a "crack shot" or "crack troops"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City

A: This is a tough question, but I'll take a crack at it. "Crack," which derives from Old English "cracian" and the Middle English "crakken," first appeared in English as a verb meaning "to make a sudden, sharp noise." Some linguists believe that the word "crack" arose echoically, that is, as an imitation of a startling snap; think of a breaking branch.

Soon the verb "crack" came to refer to other actions that might make such a sound, e.g., to break, split or strike something, and, by extension, to move quickly ("get cracking"), to lose composure ("crack up"), to solve something ("crack a code"), and to try something new ("take a crack at it," which originally referred to firing a rifle for the first time).

Two other spinoff meanings are "to say something startling or striking," as in "to crack a joke," and "to speak in a loud, boastful way to promote something," e.g., "He cracked up his friend's new restaurant." Today, this phrase is used most often in a negative sense when we say something "isn't what it's cracked up to be."

The use of "crack up" to mean "to praise something" soon gave rise to the adjective "crack" meaning "top-notch," as in "crack shot" and "crack troops." Though this meaning of "crack" is applied most often in military or gun-related contexts, we do occasionally speak of a "crack prosecutor," "crack accountant" or "crack politician," but, alas, almost never of a "crack teacher," "crack scientist" or even a "crack safecracker."

Q: My mother is always insistent that we say "different from" instead of "different than." Is she correct, and why or why not? -- Jenny Mount, Oxford, New Jersey

 

A: Moms know best -- most of the time. "Different from" should indeed be used when two nouns or noun phrases are being compared, e.g., "vanilla is different from chocolate," "baseball is different from cricket."

But because "from" is a preposition, not a conjunction, crack grammarians decree that "different than" should be used when the object of the comparison is expressed as a full clause, e.g., "The menu is different than it was last month." (Yes, you could say, "The menu is different from what it was last month," but that's wordy and awkward.)

Let your ear be your guide. In most cases, the word that sounds more natural is the correct choice. I'm sure your mom would approve.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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