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!