"a split, an opening, narrow fracture," mid-15c., earlier "a splitting sound; a fart; the sound of a trumpet" (late 14c.), probably from crack (v.). Meaning "sharp, resounding blow" is from 1836. Meaning "rock cocaine" is first attested 1985. The superstition that it is bad luck to step on sidewalk cracks has been traced to c. 1890. Meaning "try, attempt" first attested 1830, nautical, probably a hunting metaphor, from slang sense of "fire a gun."
At their head, apart from the rest, was a black bull, who appeared to be their leader; he came roaring along, his tail straight an [sic] end, and at times tossing up the earth with his horns. I never felt such a desire to have a crack at any thing in all my life. He drew nigh the place where I was standing; I raised my beautiful Betsey to my shoulder, took deliberate aim, blazed away, and he roared, and suddenly stopped. ["A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself," Philadelphia, 1834]
Adjectival meaning "top-notch, superior, excellent, first rate" (as in a crack shot) is slang from 1793, perhaps from earlier verbal sense of "do any thing with quickness or smartness" [Johnson], or from the verb in the sense of "speak boastingly" and suggesting "having qualities to be proud of" [Century Dictionary]. Grose (1796) has "THE CRACK, or ALL THE CRACK. The fashionable theme, the go." To fall or slip through the cracks figuratively, "escape notice," is by 1975. Crack-brained "demented" is attested from 1630s.
Old English cracian "make a sharp noise, give forth a loud, abrupt sound," from Proto-Germanic *krakojan (source also of Middle Dutch craken, Dutch kraken, German krachen); the whole group is probably ultimately imitative. Related: Cracked; cracking.
From c. 1300 as "to burst, split open" (intransitive), also transitive, "to cause to break into chinks." From 1785 as "break or crush into small pieces." Of the voice, "change tone suddenly," as that of a youth passing into manhood, c. 1600. Meaning "to open and drink" (a bottle) is from 16c.
From early 14c. as "to utter, say, speak, talk freely," especially "speak loudly or boastingly" (late 14c.). To crack a smile is from 1835, American English; to crack a joke is by 1732, probably from the "speak, say" sense. To crack the whip in the figurative sense is from 1886. Get cracking "go to work, start doing what is to be done" is by 1937.
What is a crack in English? A chat! The synonym is as perfect as possible; yet the words are subtly distinguished by a whole hemisphere of feeling. A chat, by comparison "wi' a crack," is a poor, frivolous, shallow, altogether heartless business. A crack is, indeed, only adequately to be defined as a chat with a good, kindly, human heart in it .... [P.P. Alexander, notes to "Last Leaves," Edinburgh, 1869]
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