I recently used the word "crutch" to describe a reliance of online resources as a substitute for actual knowledge. The exact sentence I used was "How do you ensure that the Internet is a helpful learning tool, rather than a crutch?".

My intent was to discuss how to avoid what I perceived as possible long-term repercussions to children learning to Google for quick answers rather than learn the subject matter to a depth that makes such searching unnecessary.

However, I was surprised to get a response that indicated that "crutch" meant a "short-term" solution. In support of this position was a dictionary.com reference to this definition of the word: "anything that serves as a temporary and often inappropriate support, supplement, or substitute; prop: He uses liquor as a psychological crutch."

I have never considered the word crutch used in that context to be temporally limited. Rather, I have always assumed that "a shortcut or tool relied upon to overcome shortcomings" was a valid meaning. Is my interpretation correct, or does the phrase "relying on [x] as a crutch" always imply a short-term situation?

  • I'm not a fan of Dictionary.com. In fact, I'm not a fan of using any single dictionary. A great place to start researching a word is OneLook.com, which will provide links to entries in a long list of online dictionaries.
    – MetaEd
    Jan 3, 2013 at 0:18

3 Answers 3


If you look at the example provided, liquor provides short-term, temporary relief, and it can be used repeatedly over the long term. Technically the definition is correct, but the word "temporary" can be applied to all things. Nothing lasts forever.

In terms of the internet, the knowledge or learning a child gains from using the internet is temporarily supported by the search - but it does not stay in their heads forever, just as the peace-of-mind brought on by alcohol does not stay forever. It's semantics, nothing more, and if you interpret the definition to mean that the crutch is not reusable indefinitely, it does not seem to match the example.

I would counter that dictionary entry with this one: http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/crutch

  • Definition #2 from that link was exactly what I had in mind when I used the word, but none of the definitions I found through google matched that... I guess googling is a poor crutch to use compared to getting out a real dictionary ;)
    – Beofett
    Jan 2, 2013 at 20:58
  • "In the long run, we are all dead." - John Maynard Keynes One of my favorites.
    – MT_Head
    Jan 3, 2013 at 3:32

I wouldn't say it always implies a short-term situation, though it certainly may. Another dictionary site, merriam-webster.com, defines a crutch as a "prop", which is further defined as "something that props or sustains : support". In the particular sentence cited in the question, if you intended a use meaning merely "support" in a general sense, a helpful learning tool would presumably be a learning support and thus a crutch under this definition (and if I recall correctly, you referred to the Webster's definition in your other question).

It seems that in your use of "crutch" you wanted not to imply a temporal limitation, but also to keep the aspect of inappropriate support. I guess I would say that that seems fair enough, but also that it's a use that is at least open to a range of interpretations. In the sense of being general aids or supports, crutches aren't bad; and if one considers the likely origination of the general meaning of "support" as a metaphor for a physical crutch used as an aid or support in walking (I don't have my print OED to hand or I'd check), it's hard to draw a parallel to use of online resources by students, most of whom don't begin by being crippled or injured in that area.

I wonder if the temporal limitation in that one definition doesn't come from using "crutch" as a synonym for "stopgap", which certainly does imply inappropriateness as well as being short-term. Thesaurus.com, at least, doesn't list them as synonyms for each other, though.

In any event, I would note that the offending poster removed the offending first paragraph from the offending answer prior to this being posted. I would say however that this question is not rendered moot, as it seems capable of repetition, yet otherwise evading review.

ETA: I would also note the third definition given by the Macmillan Dictionary, cited in another answer. It certainly seems that children could suffer long-term effects from finding crutches online, throwing more weight behind the use of the term given in the OP.

  • 1
    Fancy seeing you here :)
    – Beofett
    Jan 2, 2013 at 20:31

A crutch makes things easier in the short term. If you use it as little as possible, you'll eventually be able to do the thing without the crutch better than you could with it, but if you overrely on it, you'll never improve and will always need it.

A GPS is a good example of a crutch. When I'm in a strange city and don't know my way around, I'll use my GPS as a crutch. If I use it as little as possible, I'll learn my way around the city and won't need it any more, but if I overrely on it, I'll never learn my way around the city and will always need it.

A crutch should be a temporary, because they are meant to help overcome temporary shortcomings. There's nothing wrong with using a crutch when you need it. The negative connotation of a crutch implies that your are past the point of needing it and should be standing on your own two feet.

If a thing is not meant to be temporary, or if you'll never be able to perform a task as well without it as you could with it, then it's a tool rather than a crutch.

Your usage of crutch was correct, and I see the person who argued that a crutch means a short-term solution as actually making your point.

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