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Friday, August 9, 2013

Wheelbarrow or wheelbarrel?

I overheard a landscaper yesterday talking to his colleagues about a "wheelbarrel". This is an occasional mistake people make; indeed when I worked at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary department we had a letter from someone who said she had a bet with her boyfriend about it and a pizza was riding on the outcome! 

It's not surprising that people change "barrow" into "barrel" because "barrow", originally something like a stretcher on legs with shafts by which it could be lifted, is not a common word anymore. This phenomenon of exchanging an unfamiliar word to a similar sounding familiar one has been quite common over the course of the history of the language. For instance, as we saw earlier, the Old English word "goom" became "groom".  

 Another phenomenon favouring the understanding of "Barrow" as "barrel" is that terminal l's are often swallowed up in speech, or in some varieties of the language turned into a vowel, so some people will say "barrel" as if it were "barrew". 

"Barrel" came into English from French; its ultimate origin is unknown. "Barrow", on the other hand, like most garden equipment terms, likely goes back to Anglo-Saxon, related to the word "bear" (carry).

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16 comments:

  1. I don't spell it either way and never will, because the object is basically a "beast of burden" (donkey/mule/burro) therefore: wheelburro
    that's the way I will always spell it.

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  2. early wheelbarrows were often made from half of a wooden barrel, (sawn in half) mounted on two sticks to a wheel. i suggest wheelbarrel is a perfectly ligitimate spelling and usage.

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    1. This is a folk etymology created from the mistaken form "wheelbarrel". The word "wheelbarrow" has evidence back to the 1300s, and since a wheelbarrow is a barrow on wheels, this is the logical etymology.

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    2. As of 2015, wheel-barrel also makes logical sense and the image in the mind is very powerful.

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    3. "is a perfectly ligitimate spelling and usage." Except you spelled legitimate wrong.

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  3. Thanks to everyone for the clarification. I grew up using words that really didn't properly exist. Such as "arn" instead of "iron" or "crick" intead of "creek". I did grow up saying wheelbarrow instead of wheelbarrel. So I did have that right, but at some point started to second guess myself. Thinking every word I said was wrong. Growing up in an old coal mining town, I learned all kinds of words that I took for granted as correct. I still find people looking at me with confusion over things I say. Thanks to people such as yourselves I can get some clarification. That being said, I do find beauty in mispronounced words, somehow it warms my heart.

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    1. Haha! Well, your heart would have been SO warmed if you had heard me speak as a young child! That moment when you ask for a "Napoleon" ice cream sandwich at the swimming pool snack counter, and amongst all the laughter someone FINALLY tells you that it's pronounced "neopolitan" ... And you sit there thinking-how many times have I said it that way, and all this time I was wrong..." I couldn't help it though! My parents always said it that way, and unfortunately that wasn't the only word I eventually (sometimes painfully) discovered I'd been mispronouncing! I quickly made it a priority to learn how to say (and write) things properly, because I didn't like to be teased, and I also just didn't want to be wrong (just 'because')! Wouldn't it be nice to see more of this generation wanting to learn proper English 'just because'? There is actually great power in having a broad vocabulary and learning to effectively express yourself through your words.

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  4. My husband pronounces it "wheelborrow" instead of "barrow." Have you ever heard of this? I don't think either of his parents say it this way, so I don't know if he just made that up or if it's really a dialect thing.

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    Replies
    1. No, I have never heard that pronunciation.

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    2. Yes, my husband says wheelborrow. He is from Minnesota. I am from Missouri and heard it prounounced wheelbarrel. I never questioned the pronunciation because in the country they were actually made of a half barrel. It was not until I moved away that I heard it pronounced wheelbarrow. Interesting how different areas of the U.S. change the way a word is pronounced. Here in southern Illinois they might as well leave every word ending in ing and replace it with in. They are goin to be playin in the yard. LOL

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  5. I just think it's slang for northerners. Wheel barrow I had never heard until moving to the south.. like we say this and that but here in the south people say dis and dat..not just hip-hop terminology either..

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  6. Everybody knows it is wheel barrel and always has been. The original wheel barrel was a barrel cut in half with a wheel in front and two handles at the rear. It's pretty obvious. Making words up, like barrow, is just silly. (in case you are wondering, my tongue is in my cheek)

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  7. I had been wondering which was correct. Thank you!

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  8. I don't know how I got here but I love it. My mama was a wonderful gardener and she called it a "wheelbarrow". We thought she was pronouncing it wrong. Should have known she got it right. She graduated Valedictorian.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.