The Grammarphobia Blog

What do you call that thingy?

Q: I’ve searched for the answer to this question for five years: What do you call those short, sturdy posts that are used to keep vehicles off sidewalks, traffic islands, and so on? I just ran across the word, though I expect that you already know it: “bollard.”

A: No, I didn’t know it. Thanks for ending the suspense! “Bollard” goes into my list of “what do you call that thing” words, along with a little history about the term.

The word, I learn, has been around since the mid-19th century. At first, it referred to a post (on a ship or boat or dock) that was used for securing rope.

By the mid-20th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was also being used for a post on a traffic island. One of the first published references for the second usage is in a 1955 article in the Times of London: “The woman was waiting between the bollards in the middle of the crossing.”

Where does “bollard” come from? The OED says the word’s origin is unknown, but the dictionary speculates that it might be derived from “bole” (the trunk of a tree).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describe “bollard” as primarily British. But Wikipedia says the term has been making inroads in the U.S., especially on college campuses with traffic problems.

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