Why do they call them potholes?

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We call them “potholes.” And when we hit a particularly deep, jarring one, we may refer to them as %@!*ing potholes. These abrupt breaks in pavement come in all shapes and sizes, cause thousands of dollars of damage to cars, trucks and buses, and they’re a growing fiscal problem for local, state and national budgets. But where does the name come from?

Folklore has it that the famous road builders of the Roman Empire, more than 3,000 years ago, were hampered by potters who dug up chunks of clay from the smooth highways of that time. The clay became pots, and hence the name. But that doesn’t entirely make sense, since Roman roads were made of a combination of stones, lime, course sand and sometimes metal.

In the UK – where Londoner Steve Wheen has developed a cult following for his planting of cyclamen, a flowering perennial, in pavement potholes. His form of guerilla gardening helps warn bicyclists of the road hazard ahead. The flowers rarely last more than a few hours, but it brings attention to the issue – and no doubt leaves a thorn in the side of politicians held responsible for road repair.

Another root for the word is based in the United States. By the 1820s in America, civil engineers and geologists were pondering geologic features in glaciers and naturally occurring gravel beds. Cylindrical cuts into river rock are also called potholes, sometimes kettle holes, and are due to erosion of the rock over eons of time. To fishermen, it can be a good area for angling. Where geology and time have dried up those beds, chasms remain.

Geologically-formed potholes include the Ausable Chasm, a sandstone gorge in Keeseville, NY, part of the Adirondacks region of the state. Leading to Lake Champlain, a popular summer tourist destination, it is referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East. Which doesn’t really make the East look all that impressive, as it only stretches for about two miles (the Grand Canyon is 18 miles wide and 277 miles long). Where it comes to potholes, size really does matter.

One has to wonder about life before TV and the movies when you consider the origins of Archbald Pothole State Park. Believed to be a result of the Wisconsin Glacial Period (which had its heyday 70,000 years ago), the Archbald Pothole is 38 feet deep and 42 feet wide. Situated in eastern Pennsylvania (Lackawanna County), it was discovered by a coal miner in 1884. By 1914, the owner of the land deeded the acre surrounding the pothole to the county, and later the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because it had become a tourist attraction. Really – people came from miles around to look into a 38-foot-deep hole. Over the years, it declined in popularity but in 1997, a $170,000 renovation of the site was undertaken to improve its family-friendly nature (reported, it developed an unsavory reputation for lewd and lascivious behavior; also, tossing of garbage into the hole had become a bit of a local sport). Subsequently, in 2002, state funds were allocated to construct soccer fields, a tennis court, basketball court, walking trail, access roads and parking for the area.

Individuals critical of the continued expenditures around the Archbald Pothole suggested certain potholes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike were more deserving of the funding.

But really, it’s about the %@!*ing potholes
By 1909, when car use was beginning to become more common, the term pothole began to be applied to American roads.

The rest is history. Because as more people acquired cars and discovered motoring, more roads were built. And as more roads stretched from sea to shining sea, more potholes popped up (actually, popped down – potholes always go down).

On America’s West Coast, the term “chuckhole” is often used. Reportedly, the word derives from the travels of writer E.L. Wilson, who rode a covered wagon from New Jersey to Ohio in 1836, saying that “the abundance of traveling…wears the road in to deep holes; these we call chuck-holes.” Anyone traveling today from, say, the Jersey Shore (to avoid characters from a certain reality TV show, perhaps?) to Toledo or Cleveland or Cincinnati (anywhere but the Jersey Shore) would take the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Chuckholes, potholes or kettles – regardless of what you call them, the ride would likely be bumpy, lo all these years later.

Politicians for high office like to promote their street-repair cred around potholes during campaigns. Former New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato called himself Senator Pothole, a reference to his interest in “local minutiae.” D’Amato lost his seat in 1998. Also, John Oxendine ran a distant fourth in the Georgia GOP gubernatorial primary in August, 2010, despite his endorsement by one supporter, an insurance executive, who said “John would be a pothole governor. He’s going to get things fixed. He is not a policy guy. That’s just not in him. He’s the guy who is going to fix the pothole himself.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California famously did a photo-op in 2005 with an asphalt rake, to show his attention to the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Pundits argued for weeks whether or not the hole was created for the photo op, which seems unlikely given the extent of roads and potholes in the Golden State.

Those politicians, when elected, have a lot to deal with where it comes to potholes (or kettles or chuckholes). According to TRIP, a nonprofit organization promoting transportation policies to improve road and bridge conditions, 23 percent of roads in metropolitan areas have pavement in poor condition. The Federal Highway Administration says that 39 percent of rural roads fall below a “good condition” standard. TRIP also reports that urban motorists, on average, spend $413 each year in additional maintenance, vehicle deterioration and increased fuel consumption due to rough road conditions.

Which is why they continue to be referred to as %@!*ing potholes.