Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Third-Wheeling It in the Friend Zone

In the thick of homecoming season and with a son in high school, I've been hearing more these days about who likes who, who's dating who, and who's unwillingly unattached at the moment. It turns out there have been some changes in the vocabulary for that situation since my high-school and college days.

A relatively recent twist on the idea of "let's just be friends" is the "friend zone." According to the website Know Your Meme, this term was coined in November 1994, in an episode of — appropriately enough — Friends. In this episode, Joey told Ross that Ross would never be Rachel's boyfriend because she had put him in the friend zone. Ross protested, and Joey insisted "You are the mayor of the friend zone!" Since then, friend zone has become an Internet meme, with its history carefully documented in the Know Your Meme entry. A good example is the "Friend Zone Fiona" meme, involving a picture of a laughing, blonde woman, which you can customize with captions like, "Totally wants you ... to find the right girl someday."

For high-schoolers today, the term friend zone has been around for their entire life — so basically, forever. Long enough for them to take it as a stable enough concept to turn the noun friend zone into the verb friendzone. It started with the past participle form friendzoned, which has been a word since at least August 2007, when it was used in an advice column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Friendzoned as an actual past tense (as in "She friendzoned him") has been around since at least 2009, when it was used on a site that it's not safe to link to. The gerund friendzoning seems to have arrived next. Although I've found one early attestation from November 2005 in a review of the movie Just Friends in the Palm Beach Post, all the other examples I've found came after a 2012 picture that the Know Your Meme entry references. It shows the character Morpheus from The Matrix, staring at you coldly, with a caption that asks, "What if I told you ... that friendzoning is bull---- because girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out."

As that quotation demonstrates, the word and concept of friendzone has been called out as sexist and lazy, as it is nearly always used with regard to a man who has been "put" into this awkward place by a woman who doesn't have the decency to respect his romantic interest in her. Although stories of women getting friendzoned do exist, this complaint is worth keeping in mind if you're thinking about incorporating friendzone, noun or verb, into your vocabulary.

Now suppose that willingly or unwillingly, you don't have a significant other, and find yourself hanging around with a friend who does. The term for that is fifth wheel ... or at least it used to be. In a message sent to the American Dialect Society email list in March of this year, Charlie Doyle wrote:

I was surprised in my folklore class this morning to discover that only a couple of my 35 students were familiar with the expression "be a fifth wheel." Overwhelmingly, their version of the conceit as "be a third wheel."

They explained that the expression usually refers to a third person invited to accompany a dating couple — so the image of four wheels + one would be inappropriate. They were unimpressed by my observation that a third wheel would lend stability to a two-wheeled vehicle.

He wrote that he had been unable to find this meaning of third wheel earlier than the 1970s. Garson O'Toole, who writes the Quote Investigator blog, accepted the challenge and  replied two hours later with a 1949 citation from the Saturday Evening Post, in a short story titled "Decadent Angel" by Phyllis Duganne:

Certainly I was jealous of Springer, since I was more than half in love with Campaspe myself. I remember once, in a childish outburst of temper, that I told Springer I was sick of being the perpetual "gooseberry," the unnecessary third wheel.

(Gooseberry, by the way, is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary with the meaning of a chaperone, often in the phrase play gooseberry, from 1837.)

This 1949 date beats the earliest hit in the Corpus of Historical American English by six years. Out of COHA's 10 hits for third wheel in this sense, its 1955 example is interesting for its explicit equating of people on a date to wheels, which matches the intuition of Doyle's students:

Bunty ... had said repeatedly in the last few days that Joe was up to something, that the double date wasn't a generous gesture but a trick of some kind, a vengeful way of getting even and adding a fourth wheel because he was sick of being a third wheel, and now she was convinced that Bunty had been right.

As for fifth wheel, COHA provides confirmation that it was the original form of this idiom: Compared to the 10 hits for third wheel, going back only to 1955, it has 23 hits for fifth wheel, going back to 1839. Furthermore, the earlier hits for fifth wheel are very clear about its metaphorical foundation; they specifically refer to a wagon, coach, or cart. The 1839 example is from a work of fiction, with a character complaining, "Why I'm of no more use in my own house, than a fifth wheel would be to a wagon." The next one comes from Herman Melville's Moby Dick in 1851, in a quotation that typifies Melville's questions about religion:  "A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon." After 1940, COHA's hits are all simply fifth wheel, with no mention of a four-wheeled vehicle needed, but I did find fifth wheel on the car in an April 1956 isue of the Southern Economic Journal.

More contemporary evidence suggests that despite the late emergence of third wheel, it may indeed be rolling past fifth wheel. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, with data from 1990 to 2012, has 14 relevant hits for third wheel; ten for fifth wheel. Urban Dictionary has eight relevant user-submitted definitions for third wheel, but just two for fifth wheel.

And to cap it all off, it's third wheel that has had by far the greater success in becoming a verb. A Google search for "third wheel you" brings in 33 hits in sentences like "I don't want to third wheel you guys," whereas a search for "fifth wheel you" brings in just one. And anecdotally, third-wheelin' is the only term I've heard from my son and his friends for this situation. Third-wheeling is also the term used by Ian K. Smith, in his 2012 book The Truth About Men: The Secret Side of the Opposite Sex. He explains that "third-wheeling ... drives us absolutely crazy," in a passage that incidentally has an answer to Charlie Doyle's observation about tricycles by reverse-engineering the wheels metaphor:

Think back to when kids learn how to ride a bicycle. Once the bike hierarchy is understood, every boy in the world wants to progress from a tricycle to a bicycle as fast as possible.

Seen in this light, third wheel looks like an example of folk etymology: A word or phrase that has become semantically opaque gets altered and reinterpreted by a new generation of speakers, in a way that makes more sense to them.

Other recent terms for being uncomfortably single? Let's hear them!


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 8th 2013, 4:44 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
I've never thought the expression 'fifth wheel' made sense in the first place since truckers know it as a very useful apparatus intended for attaching trailers to tow vehicles. Though 'third wheel' makes sense numerically I agree with you that a third wheel adds stability that isn't offered by two wheels & that cancels out the numerical validity. Perhaps the wheel metaphor was the wrong way to go all along.
Friday November 8th 2013, 7:53 AM
Comment by: RACHEL J. (URBANA, IL)
"Whom" is the pronoun that needs to be used as the direct object of transitive verbs. What a strange error in the opening paragraph of an essay about language! I did not want to read the article...
Friday November 8th 2013, 8:09 AM
Comment by: Marjorie W.
I agree with Rachel! "Who meets who" is just jarring!!
Friday November 8th 2013, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the interesting and thorough investigation. I wonder how often getting participled is a gateway to getting verbed and I expect it has happened with many other one-time nouns that are now fully fledged as verbs. I can't think of any other recent terms, though an older term, "loner," is often problematic since you can't use it without conjuring pathology.
Friday November 8th 2013, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Michael D.
Can anyone explain the term "friends with benefits" and its place on the "hanging out" "hooking up" continuum. To be lovers must we first be friends? What then is friending on Facebook. "Married my best friend" etc., etc.
Friday November 8th 2013, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
"Third wheel" seems like an improvement though it's understandable that the idiom started out as "fifth wheel", as two wheeled vehicles were few and far between when it was first introduced. Most cars now have a fifth wheel, but even though it usually stays in the trunk it isn't superfluous, and I don't think the unattached member of the party is considered to be a spare by anyone other than Stephen Stills and/or the promiscuous: "third wheel" it is. On the side issue, I must confess that "who...who" didn't phase me, though I do "know" better when I take time to consider. I sometimes trot out "whom", but frequently am left considering how it is that the "wh" really has to be pronounced as an "h" rather than as the "wh" in "why" and "whether". Thanks for a fun essay that addressed a point that has occasionally nagged at me when the term was used. I think your son has it right.
Saturday November 9th 2013, 3:54 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
"Friends with benefits (FWB)" is one of several non-romantic relationship tags in use these days. Another common one of which you've likely heard is "no strings attached (NSA)". FWB is an arrangement whereby two people, either friends already or newly acquainted, agree to embark upon a relationship that allows them to satisfy their natural urges while pointedly banishing the complications brought into relationships by romance. They're not mates or partners or however you prefer to reference significant others outside of their physical interactions, but simply friends. Whether they're successful in doing so is too large a discussion to wrangle in this limited space.
Sunday November 10th 2013, 8:47 AM
Comment by: KAREN H.
I think 5th wheel was archaic long before your son's generation. I was born in 1971 & have been a 3rd wheel as long as I can remember. The phrase was introduced to me by my parents, who were both born in 1933. I've heard the 5th wheel expression a few times but just assumed it was a less cliche variation. Maybe it's a regional thing? And maybe it will sneak back into the mainstream with all things retro. Thanks for the insights.

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