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.