When we hit a particularly deep, jarring pothole, we may refer to them as %@!*ing potholes. These abrupt breaks in pavement come in all shapes and sizes, cause thousands of dollars of damage to cars, trucks and buses, and they’re a growing fiscal problem for local and national budgets. But where does the name come from?

The explanation I like best, though it probably isn’t true, says that the famous road builders of the Roman Empire, 3,000 years ago, were hampered by potters who dug up chunks of clay from the smooth highways of that time. The clay became pots, and hence the name. But that doesn’t quite work, since Roman roads were made of a combination of stones, lime, coarse sand and sometimes metal. Not exactly the kind of material that potters look for.

Another root for the word is based in the US. By the 1820s, civil engineers and geologists were pondering features in glaciers and naturally occurring gravel beds. Cylindrical cuts in river rock are also called potholes, sometimes kettle holes, and are due to erosion of the rock over eons of time. To fishermen, these can be a good area for angling. Where geology and time have dried up those beds, chasms remain.

On America’s West Coast, the term “chuckhole” is sometimes used. Apparently that word derives from the travels of writer E.L. Wilson, who rode a covered wagon from New Jersey to Ohio in 1836, and said that “the abundance of traveling…wears the road into deep holes; these we call chuck-holes.” By 1909, when car use was becoming more common, the term pothole began to be applied to American roads.

Potholes, chuckholes, or kettles – regardless of what you call them, rides are getting bumpier, all these years later. 

In the UK, one imaginative Londoner has developed a cult following for his planting of cyclamen, a flowering perennial, in pavement potholes. His form of guerilla gardening helps warn bicyclists of the road hazard ahead. The flowers rarely last more than a few hours, but they do bring attention to the issue.

Elected politicians have a lot to deal with where it comes to potholes (or kettles or chuckholes). And, besides what their solutions cost in tax dollars, urban motorists, on average, pay $413 each year in additional maintenance, vehicle deterioration and increased fuel consumption due to rough road conditions.

Which is why they continue to be referred to as %@!*ing potholes.

And thanks to http://www.pothole.info for all this interesting information!

  One thought on “potholes

  1. Betty Burroughs
    August 26, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Irene, My friend would love to be added to your list about words and their sources. She loves that kind of thing. Her name is Barb Lovick and her email is: lovick@shaw.ca Thanks, Irene…..I will forward this one about “potholes” to her. Betty


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