Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I came across this piece:

The old saying “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” may not apply to sidewalks for much longer now that MIT researchers have figured out why concrete breaks down. As a result of the discovery, structures like buildings, bridges, and yes, sidewalks, could last for hundreds of years longer than they currently do. A nuclear waste container built to last 100 years could, for example, last 16,000 years.

According to MIT professor Franz-Josef Ulm, creep (the process that create cracks) is created when calcium-silicate-hydrates (CSH) rearrange at the nano scale. When mixed with water, CSH particles change in density from 64% to 74%. By adding silica fumes–a waste product from aluminum production–to concrete, overall density can increase to 87%. That’s a change that could eventually lead to longer-lasting, lighter structures.

If Ulm’s theories are put it into practice, the concrete industry and the planet could benefit immensely. 5 to 8% of all manmade CO2 comes from manmade concrete construction, so any reduction in the need to produce more of the stuff would slow global warming. And with twenty billion tons of concrete churned out annually, there’s plenty of room to cut down on production.

Anybody know what does “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” mean in the context above? If it is an idiom, as I think, what are the origin and contexts wherein we could use it?

share|improve this question
    
1  
It's not an idiom, it's a cultural thing, it is simply from a children's rhyme. It means what it says. The article is just saying there won't be as many cracks anymore. –  Mitch Jun 22 '12 at 13:52
2  
When a problem comes along, you must whip it... –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 22 '12 at 14:24
    
When I was a schoolgirl I used to read a magazine called "Mad". I remember (and perhaps still have) an issue in which the main character, being particularly angry with his mother, stepped purposefully on the cracks between the stones which made up the pavement (or sidewalk, if you prefer), hoping to obtain exactly that result. –  Paola Jun 27 '12 at 0:14
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is from an old children's game: if you trod on the cracks between paving stones you were out.

I seem to recall we used to also have the line "step on a line, break your father's spine" in there.

share|improve this answer
4  
... when I was particularly mad at my mother, I'd sometimes intentionally step on cracks... Not thinking anything would happen of course, but just to amuse myself. –  Charles Jun 22 '12 at 14:37
    
The version I remember is “step on a nick, you’ll marry a brick – and a beetle will come to your wedding.” (Or was it a spider?) –  Brian Nixon Jun 22 '12 at 16:07
2  
Of course, any sensible child knows that if you step on cracks your mother's back won't break. Bears will come and eat you. –  Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 2:41
    
Unless you step on a plumber's crack, but then we don't want to go there! –  rhetorician Mar 9 '13 at 16:54
add comment

The meaning is clear in the very first sentence of the article. MIT researchers have found out why concrete breaks down. So, now, cracks in concrete can be avoided. As a result, the sidewalks - made of concrete - would no longer have cracks. And, thus, this saying would no longer be valid for sidewalks.

share|improve this answer
1  
We included the sidewalk joints (intentionally made when a sidewalk is poured) when we jumped over cracks playing this game. I would think concrete workers would continue to use sidewalk joints, even with the improved concrete. –  JLG Jun 22 '12 at 20:51
1  
@JLG, some concrete composites eliminate numerous joints. For example: "The Michigan Department of Transportation will use the ECC to replace part of a bridge that crosses Interstate 94. The slab will eliminate the need for expansion joints, which are moveable steel teeth that separate sections of regular concrete. With the ECC, a longer continuous slab will be possible." –  jwpat7 Jun 22 '12 at 23:38
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.