This is my 500th post for “The Oxford Etymologist,” nine and a half years after this column started in March 2006, and I decided to celebrate this event by writing something light and entertaining. Enough wrestling with words like bad, good, and god! Anyone can afford a week’s break. So today I’ll discuss an idiom that sounds trivial only because it is so familiar. Familiarity breeds not only contempt but also indifference.
Why do we say to put a spoke in one’s wheel? This question occupied the attention of some correspondents to Notes and Queries [NQ] from September 1853 to July 1854, and more than a century and a half later I found the exchange worthy of attention. We put a spoke in somebody’s wheel to frustrate the person. But “how can putting a spoke to a wheel impede its progress?” wondered the man who opened the discussion. Before writing a letter, he “inquired of an intelligent lady, of long American descent, in what way she had been accustomed to hear the phrase.” Though a woman and an American, the lady, as we hear, had excellent credentials. Her answer was: “Certainly as help: we need to say to one who had anything in hand of difficult accomplishment, ‘Do not be faint-hearted, I’ll give you a spoke’.”
The OED has several examples for the obsolete noun spoke meaning “good advice” and other helpful things, recorded just around the time when the first British colonists landed in the New World. Spoke “good advice” was, as we hear, used colloquially in American English in 1853 and, according to the OED, the same holds for British English, but this sense was recorded in books exceptionally seldom. The person who consulted the intelligent American lady was evidently not familiar with it, and Webster’s dictionary published around 1853 has no trace of it either. (Does the word spokesman have its strange root vowel from the noun spoke “speech”?) It appears as though the homonymy of the two words resulted in some confusion, and spoke “rod” could sometimes be taken for spoke “helpful speech.” The OED’s earliest citations of the English idiom in both senses go back to the end of the sixteenth century.
To most of us, I believe, spokes are put in wheels to thwart rather than promote our undertakings. Who did that terrible thing to real wheels? One of the correspondents who reacted to the query admitted that the phrase could refer to any interference, either for good or evil. “I fancy,” he wrote, “the metaphor is really derived from putting the bars, or spokes, into a capstan or some such machine. A number of persons being employed, another puts his spoke in, and assists or hinders them as he pleases.” But a beneficial spoke was ‘speech, spoken words’, not ‘part of the wheel.’ A constant contributor to NQ, who signed his letters by Q., cited een spaak in t’wiel steeken, the Dutch analog of the English idiom. This fact is worthy of note because the OED suggested that the English phrase was possibly a mistranslation of the Dutch one. But I can see no mistranslation: the two idioms are a perfect match. And do we have to understand that the English phrase is an adaptation of the phrase in Dutch? The astute Q. added that the effect of putting a spoke in a wheel was similar to that of spiking a cannon (that is, of driving a steel spike into the touchhole).
Not only did Q. (I am sorry for mixing metaphors) hit the nail on the head. Unwittingly, he anticipated a linguistic problem. Are spoke and spike related? Those words go back to Old English spaca (with long a as in Modern Engl. spa) and Middle Engl. spik (with long i, as in Modern Engl. peek), possibly a borrowing, but the lending language also had long i (in the same sense, as above). In Old English, long a developed from ai, and ablaut, under whose ferrule we toe the line, allowed ai and long i to alternate in the same root. Consequently, spoke and spike can be cognate. But back to the wheel!
Here are two explanations of the idiom from the real world.
“The phrase must have its origin in the days in which the vehicles used in this country [England] had wheels of solid wheels without spokes…. A vehicle used in the cultivation of the land on the slopes of the skirts of Dartmoor in Devonshire has three wheels of solid wood; it resembles a huge wheelbarrow, with two wheels behind, and one in the front of it…. As the horse is attached to the vehicle by chains only and has no power to hold it back when going down hill [sic], the driver is provided with a piece of wood, ‘a spoke’…for the purpose of ‘dragging’ the front wheel of the vehicle. This he effects by thrusting the spoke into one of the three round holes made in the solid wheel for that purpose.”
A condensed version of this explanation appears in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a popular but unreliable reference book), and one can find it repeated by gullible people on the Internet.
The trouble is that the wheel-and-spoke idiom has international currency. We have already seen the Dutch version. The French saying is mettre des batons dans les roues (bâtons “sticks” is the plural form). The Russian phrase is the same: vstavliat’ palki v kolyosa “to put sticks in the wheels” (sticks, not spokes). However, Russian also has a rhyming idiom piataia spitsa v kolesnitse “a fifth spoke in a chariot.” According to one theory, spitsa “spoke” is here a facetious substitute for koleso “wheel” (stress on the last syllable; to a cart a fifth wheel would be an obvious impediment). Do the idioms in French, English, and Dutch have a common source? Even if in most of Europe there were carts like those in Devonshire, it is hard to imagine that they gave rise to the idiom. German lacks an equivalent; in Germany, people “throw a stick between a person’s legs.”
The other explanation known to me is shorter but probably more to the point: “I have always understood the ‘spoke’ to be, not a radius of the wheel, but a bar put between the spokes at right angles, so as to prevent the turning of the wheel; a rude mode of ‘locking’, which I have often seen practised.” However we may interpret the idiom, spoke in it means “bar” or “stick,” but the questions of its origin and the mode of diffusion from language to language remain.
By way of conclusion, I would like to emphasize a curious detail. Everybody who has studied Old and Middle English knows that, if we understand all the words in a sentence and have unraveled the syntax, we are able to translate the text. We will never run there into expressions like at sixes and sevens, in a brown study, to sow one’s wild oats, kick the bucket, or beat about the bush. If someone kicks the bucket in an old text, it means exactly what it says: there are a bucket and a kicker. Similes are numerous, and so are proverbial sayings, but we find very little figurative language. In Germanic, only Old Icelandic had some metaphorical expressions. For example, in that language one could play with two shields (= equivocate), because one shield would be red (for war) and one white (for peace). Chaucer and his contemporaries are idiomatic to a very small degree, and the great Middle High German poets hardly at all. The explosion of figurative language came with the Renaissance. It was part of a major shift in the mental development of the former barbarians, who finally caught up with the Romans. Strange, that most of our idioms arose late (probably around the time when they surfaced in texts), and yet in most cases we don’t know their origin. Those who have read my post on laughter and the sense of humor will recognize a familiar motif.