Between the Lines

This morning while walking I noticed how I was automatically stepping over all the seams and cracks in the pavement, unconsciously shortening or lengthening my stride to do this. Why do we do this? I know why I do it. Early in life I was told, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” To this was sometimes added “Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.”

This lesson was no doubt reinforced by hearing the poem “Lines and Squares” from A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young (published 1924), in which the narrator (assumed to be Christopher Robin, i.e., Christopher Milne) says:

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
    And I keep in the squares,
    And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
    Go back to their lairs,
    And I say to them, “Bears,
    Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”

And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”

Given my obsessive-compulsive nature, it is not surprising that I am still avoiding cracks and lines, even though my mother died in 2002, her back somewhat deformed by osteoporosis but otherwise sound. That’s why I do it. But how did this superstition get started?

Naturally, Google has a number of answers, most of them inconclusive. One suggestion, repeated verbatim in a number of places but entirely unsupported by references, implies racial overtones. Several sources describe it (again without any documentation, not to mention logical explanation) as an outgrowth of the “corner bears” superstition. This is interesting, since it is not clear whether Milne invented this superstition or merely recorded it.

A Google Books result for Miss Mary Mack: And Other Children’s Street Rhymes, by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson, expands the familiar rhyme as follows (p. 48):

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.
Step in a hole, break your mother’s sugar bowl.
Step in a ditch, your mother’s nose will itch.

Although this could plausibly be a jump-rope rhyme, it seems to be more closely associated with hopscotch. A Canadian source adds, “Step on a nail [in a wooden boardwalk], you’ll put your father in jail.” A ListServ exchange documents references to this superstition in print as early as 1917 (quoting someone reminiscing about childhood), so it’s not too much of a stretch to assume it was current in the late nineteenth century, if not earlier.

But where does the whole concept come from? It seems reasonable that the “game” (as some describe it) or superstition or ritual would not predate pavement; most people don’t seem to associate it with natural cracks in unpaved earth. But could it perhaps derive from such cracks? As I walked this morning (before doing all this googling), I wondered if perhaps some primitive instinct warns us that where there is a crack, a crevice or even a crevasse might open, that a crack might indicate some instability in the earth, a fault line of some kind. If one stepped on such a crack, one might suddenly find oneself down in a hole. I suppose this is pretty farfetched, but it is what I was thinking!

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2 Responses to Between the Lines

  1. Marina Harvey says:

    I am 76 My grandmother explained the following: In Olde England the streets were mostly cobblestones, rubbish and other unmentionables were tossed into the streets and gutters, no automatic laundry facilities then so it was true if you stepped on the cracks in the cobblestones and fell soiling your clothing, your mother’s back would suffer bent over a board washing them by hand
    .. so Mother’s would warn their children ..” don’t step where you could trip .. you’ll break my back doing your wash!” .. no anxiety there just common sense grandmother explained many sayings that made a lot of sense .. like burning the candle .. it was burned at both ends of the day .. not the stupid candle .. ..

  2. Martha Sherwood says:

    I learned it (circa 1952) as step on crack, break your back. I suspect it goes back to paving stones. The footing is better on the center of the stone and the stones are not designed for the stride of a small child.

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