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TWTS: Down in a pothole

Very few of us are enamored with, of, or by potholes. If you’re among the aforementioned few, we’d like a word. And no, it’s not “pothole.”

However, “pothole” is this week’s topic of discussion, thanks to listener Justin Lee. As far as we know, Lee has not taken a public stance on potholes, but he did send us this question:

“Somehow adding the word ‘pot’ to ‘hole’ creates a universal understanding that we mean a hole in the pavement and not just any ol' hole, but why is that? Did this word exist before we had paved roads?”

Since we deal with potholes on the regular here in Michigan, you’d think we would’ve thought of looking into this a long time ago. Maybe we missed it because we’re not enamored with, of, or by potholes.

As it turns out, “pothole” was first used to describe things other than roads.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pothole” goes back to the early 19th century. Back then, it referred to a hole that formed naturally by the wearing away of rock by stones and running water or by glacial erosion.

The OED editors note that “pothole” comes to refer more generally to any cylindrical or deep, bowl-shaped hole of natural origin.

In North American English, a “pothole” could also refer to a pond formed by water collecting in a natural hollow in the ground. It also had some specific uses in mining and archaeology.

In the late 19th century, there’s evidence of “pothole” referring to a depression or a hollow that forms a defect in the surface of a road. Of course, this is the meaning that we’re all too familiar with in Michigan.

You may have noticed that we’ve used “enamored” in conjunction with “pothole” several times. Those two words generally don’t go together, but we wanted to squeeze in another question we received about “enamored.”

Some of Professor Curzan’s colleagues wanted to know which of these phrases is correct: “enamored with,” “enamored by,” or “enamored of.” To hear our discussion, listen to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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