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How do you define broke and broke into here?

OP: "If you're not making six figures by the time you're 40, you fail at life."

P1: "whew... I just made it... broke into 6 figures at 39."

P2: "I broke 6 figures at 29. Never got much past that though."

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Broke past the figurative "barrier" at $99,999 into the six-figure range at $100,000. –  StoneyB Dec 20 '12 at 19:25
    
That's right. This is a metaphor, not a fact about the verb break, or even the phrasal verb break into. It's just TIME is MOTION with a moving subject and a frangible barrier. –  John Lawler Dec 20 '12 at 19:49
    
Protip: don't use the tag words. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 20 '12 at 20:13
    
I'm really itching to close this one as General Reference, but I'll restrain myself. Please lets not have anyone ask "What does break the sound barrier mean?" –  FumbleFingers Dec 20 '12 at 21:56
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Broke means to undo, smash, tear etc. Here it's metaphorically picturing the ¤100,000 limit as being broken like an athlete breaking a tape. It's such a common metaphor as to have moved past cliché into a new meaning.

Broke into means to break something so as to gain access to something or somewhere (burglars break into houses, and in some jurisdictions this is a separate offence to both the vandalism and the trespassing entailed). Here the speaker is referring to the fact that they stayed within the ¤100,000+ region after this - they moved from one state to another, and stayed in the latter. It's a bit of a clumsy use though, to my mind.

Priorities about what counts as "failing at life", is another matter...

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Just my impression, but I think using the phrase "broke into (x region)" comes not so much from breaking into a physical location as it does the aviation term, "breaking into" as in "We broke into clear air above 4,000 ft..." Like a plane "breaks into" a new stratum, so the speaker "broke into" the six figure stratum... –  Bob Dec 20 '12 at 20:39
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A good start might be to read

Fillmore's "The Grammar of Hitting and Breaking".

There's quite a lot going on here.

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