a superfluous wheel

Charles C Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Fri Mar 29 14:49:19 UTC 2013

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.

It's hard to search, but I can't find any instances of "be a third wheel" from earlier than the 1970s or so.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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