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Friday, July 20, 2012


It's Tour de France season, and this week we heard of the misfortunes of the cyclists whose tires were punctured by tacks which someone had maliciously scattered across their route. Cyclists (yay us!) are, in fact, the people we have to thank for the nice air-filled shock-absorbing tires on our vehicles. Pneumatic tires were invented by Robert Thomson in 1845, but they didn't catch on because people preferred soid rubber tires, probably thinking they were more durable. But then cycling started to take off, and in 1888, John Dunlop, a Belfast veterinarian, revived the idea of air-filled rubber tires and patented them for bicycles. Then the Michelin company in France adapted pneumatic tires for cars in 1895 (hence the French word for "tire": pneu). It was about this time that the British opted for the spelling "tyre", while North Americans stuck with the older form "tire".

But tires of one sort or another have, surprisingly, been with us since the late 1400s. Back then what you got was a set of curved pieces of iron plate to cover your wooden carriage wheels. Not very shock-absorbing! The word was a shortening of "attire": tires were what you "clothed" your wheels with. "Attire" came from a French word, atirier (to arrange in a row, to put in order). It is related to our word "tier" as in "tiers of seats", and also, more surprisingly, to the word "artillery". The artillerie in 13th-century France was all of your weapons of war lined up in a row; it got narrowed down to cannon and guns in the 14th century.

The verb "tire" (fatigue) is a different word altogether, coming from Anglo-Saxon.

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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.