The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a toll road a “turnpike”?

Q: I’m too shy to call you during the radio show, but I have a question. Why is a toll road called a turnpike?

A: The word “turnpike” dates back to 1420, according to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. It originally referred to a spiked barrier designed to restrict access to a road. It comes from the Middle English “turnen” (to turn) plus “pike” (a sharp spike).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the spiked barrier was used “as a defense against sudden attack, especially of men on horseback.” In the late 17th century, according to the OED, “turnpike” began being used to refer to a barrier on a toll road. By the mid-18th century, the word was used to refer to the road itself.