Recently I came across a phrase, “two-by-six crashing” in the following paragraph in Dan Brown’s fiction, “Inferno”:

"Langdon had feared as much; the last thing they needed now was to send a two-by-six crashing through a Vasari canvas – P.265"

I know the word, “two-by-four” as a finished wood used for building that measures two inches wide and four inches deep, but I’m new to “two-by-six (crashing, explosion, shock, impact).”

Google provides a sequence of headings of “two-by-six” as a quote from Dan Brown’s “Inferno” without any definition or meaning of the phrase.

Google N-Gram shows that the phrase has existed since 1820’s. The usage peaked during 1900 to 1920, and is dwindling off to 0.000.000.20% incidence level today.

It seems to me the phrase means an enormous impact, but I’m not sure. What does “two-by-six” something mean? Is that usage coming back to life?

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    I'm kinda confused that you fully understand what "two-by-four" means but can't infer that two-by-six is a slightly different size of the same thing. – David Richerby Dec 3 '17 at 22:27
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    @David Richerby 2-by-4 became a Japanee word, but my only association with the word is the wooden materials used for a house because there are many house builders that make "two-by-four" construction their selling point against conventional method of building wooden houses in our country. – Yoichi Oishi Dec 4 '17 at 3:17

As the other answers have noted, "a two-by-six" should be interpreted the same way as "a two-by-four", just a slightly larger version; it refers to a particular size of cut lumber.

Your confusion seems to come from mis-parsing the grammar of the sentence. You may be misinterpreting "crashing" as a noun that is being modified by "two-by-six", analogously to the sentence "I would send a large envelope through the mail."

However, in this sentence, "crashing" is a participle modifying "two-by-six", describing the manner in which the it would go through the canvas (violently). It should be parsed more like "I will send a ball flying through the air" or "He sent the child laughing from the room." On its own, "two-by-six crashing" is not a phrase with any particular meaning.

Alternate ways of phrasing the sentence might be, "the last thing they needed now was to make a two-by-six board crash through a Vasari canvas" or, more loosely, "it would be disastrous for them to cause the plank to go violently through the canvas."

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    +1 This seems to be where the key misunderstanding comes from, and is the key answer. On it's own "two-by-six crashing" is an out of context sentence fragment – Xen2050 Dec 2 '17 at 8:01

A two-by-six is a board that’s just like a two-by-four — except that it’s wider. :)

There are other measures of lumber like this, such as a four-by-four. All of them are industry-specific terms that do not measure out to the exact size their nominal dimensions might otherwise lead you to wrongly infer.

North American lumber dimensions

This is because they were originally the dimensions used for green, unfinished lumber, and the subsequent finishing necessarily trimmed a bit from them. Nonetheless, the exact dimensions listed above are the actual ones that people require and expect. It’s just too awkward to adjust the language to funny fractions.

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    Huh, interesting. Here in NZ a 2x4 is 45x90. Seems like it would be annoying not having them in a 1:2 ratio. – Someone Somewhere Dec 2 '17 at 12:19
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    Though 4x4 (four-by-four) usually means four-wheel drive. – user1803551 Dec 3 '17 at 17:25
  • Australia has a similar method of categorising lumber but we put the larger dimension first: four-by-two (usually pronounced “four-be-two”, perhaps reflecting a predominance of Irish convicts in our country’s nascent building trade). It’s the standard cross-section for constructing a wall frame. – Chappo Dec 6 '17 at 21:08

Hitting something with a 2x6 piece of lumber does more damage than hitting something with a 2x4 piece of lumber-- although maybe not exactly 1.5 times as much.

Hit me with a two by four

is a fairly common expression. According to our own @RegDwigHt in his answer to the ELU question What does "hit me like a two-by-four" mean?

it means

..... that the observation was a big surprise or a great shock; an aha experience or a eureka moment; an eye-opener.

@BorroO says

"It hit me like a two-by-four" means that you've been hit pretty hard

@mickyf says:

This may have derived from the story about how to handle Mules. "First" (clobbering mule with 2x4), "you have to get their attention."

All these answers were given before references were mandatory. Being hit by a two by four is such a common expression that I am not going to give a reference, but I will give a reference for getting the mule's attention. See Psychology Today, Changing the Mind of the Mule Why don't two-by-fours work as a management tool?

Dan Brown was referring to a Vasari canvas print, a piece of wall art, upon which a well-wielded two by six would inflict a great deal of damage.

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    Maybe not 1.5× as much, but how ’bout ¹⁴⁰⁄₈₉× as much? :-) – tchrist Dec 2 '17 at 3:09
  • I think if the movie is to go by, it is a piece of ceiling art, that they aren't keen to destroy by dropping anything, including themselves or a piece of wood, through it. – Bent Dec 2 '17 at 22:18

We call them "six-by-two" in New Zealand. It's a piece of wood that's common here.

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