Much of the South is littered with fresh potholes due to the drastic winter weather … rain, ice, sleet, snow and more rain. After hearing a boy ask his mom if a pothole had “pot” in it—which made us laugh—it also made us wonder … why do we call these pits in the road potholes? Is it simply because many of the holes are the shape and size of a stockpot? It’s actually more than that.
There are several explanations for the origin of the term, and here are the most prevalent ones, listed in order of most widely believed:
1) The term was originally used (as cited in 1826) to describe deep, cylindrical-shaped holes in glaciers and gravel beds. (Source) So, it was an easy segue into calling these holes that form on our roads, which have a similar shape, the same thing.
2) Blame it on a language of the mid to late Middle Ages, Middle English. See, a pot meant a pit. A pot was a geological term, meaning a deep pit in the earth. Apparently the words “pot” and “hole” were not used together until the early 1900s. (Source)
3) The most colorful explanation of the term is sadly attributed to urban myth, but the story goes like this: either in ancient Roman times or on roads in 15th- and 16th-century England (note, these time periods are thousands of years apart, but this is a myth …), carriage wheels would cause deep grooves in the roadbeds, making it easier for potters to dig into the road for the existing clay underneath needed to make pots. Thus, the driver of the carriage would mutter some expletives about the “potholes” in the road. (Source, source, source)
Of note, there are several references to the term first being used to describe this specific damage to modern roads in 1909. But, I was unable to uncover what the specific incident or article was that coined the term for our modern vocabulary.
So now that we have a better understanding on why they are called potholes, do you understand how they are formed? This is the best illustration we have found:
This winter was harsh, no doubt. Even with all of this new-found information, though, I’ll likely still be using language I’m not proud of as I navigate the gaping potholes that now plague the roads of my fair city. Sigh.