Q: Soon after we had a sinkhole fixed on our street in Grand Rapids, an author friend asked for help on Facebook about the origins of the term. Some people thought it was a US version of the UK term “swallow hole.” Bring in the scholars.
A: This is a timely question for us, since we’ve just updated the sinkhole coverage in our home insurance policy.
Is “sinkhole” an Americanism? No, it dates back to an abbey in northwest England in the mid-1400s, and it’s the usual term today in both the US and the UK for that hole in the ground.
Several other terms, including “swallow hole,” “swallow pit,” and “swallow,” have shown up over the years, especially in the UK.
Why “swallow”? Because the word meant a gulf or an abyss in late Old English, where it was spelled geswel, swelg, or swell.
Similar words in other old Germanic languages referred to a throat, a swallower, a devourer, a glutton, and a whirlpool—in other words, someone or something that swallows stuff.
All six of the standard American and British dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “sinkhole,” but only one has an entry for “swallow hole,” and none include “swallow pit” or “swallow” used in this sense.
The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary, includes all four terms, and hyphenates “sink-hole.” However, none of the standard dictionaries use hyphens.
Searches of book and news databases indicate that “sinkhole” is overwhelmingly more popular than “swallow hole.” In searching the archive for the UK edition of the Guardian, for example, we got thousands of hits for “sinkhole” and only two for “swallow hole.”
When the term “sinkhole” showed up in the 15th century, according to the OED, it meant “a hole or hollow into which foul matter runs or is thrown.”
The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1456 document in the Chartulary of Cockersand Abbey, a collection of papers about the abbey’s founding and legal rights:
“Following the said strind [stream] to the Sinkehole, and fro Sinkeholl ye water running one while aboue the Earth and other while under ye Erth, into the Black polles [pools].” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
By the late 18th century, the OED says, the term was being used in the modern sense of a “hole, cavern, or funnel-shaped cavity made in the earth by the action of water on the soil, rock, or underlying strata, and frequently forming the course of an underground stream.”
The earliest example is from a March 20, 1780, diary entry in Travels in the American Colonies, a collection of 18th-century journals edited by Newton Dennison Mereness:
“Springs … appear again either in Sink holes immediately vanishing or bursting out.”
Oxford describes the newer usage as “chiefly U.S.,” but notes that its “entry has not been fully updated (first published 1911).”
As for “swallow hole,” the OED’s first citation is from Britannia Baconica (1660), by Joshua Childrey, who used the Baconian method to study scientific curiosities in Britain:
“About Badminton also are several holes (called Swallow-holes) where the Waters … fall into the bowels of the earth, and are seen no more.”
The OED doesn’t define “swallow hole” but says it’s derived from the now-obsolete Old English use of “swallow” to mean “a deep hole or opening in the earth; a pit, gulf, abyss.”