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shameless pleading

Truck (flagpole)

In which we keep on keepin’ on.

Dear Word Detective:  When, where and how did the ball on the top of a flagpole become known as a “truck”? — Larry, Montrose,  CO.

This is a deceptively simple, but actually very awesome, question, at least it is for me.  I had no idea that the doodad on top of a flagpole is called a “truck,” but (here’s the awesome part) I’ve been wondering for years what that thing is called.  Of course, I couldn’t have been wondering about it very hard, or I would have tried, you know, looking it up, but I’ve been busy the past few years.  Decades, in fact.  Decades in which I resorted to referring to “that thing at the top of the pole” on several occasions.  But now that you’ve answered my question, we can toddle along to answer yours.

The word “truck” is truly the gift that keeps on giving.  Looking back through my web archives (at www.word-detective.com), I see that I’ve answered questions involving the word “truck” at least three times in the past few years, and that’s not even counting questions about turnip trucks and truck farming.  But that prolixity is partly due to the fact that English actually has two separate “trucks,” unrelated in either history or meaning.

The older “truck,” first appearing in the 13th century, is a verb meaning “to exchange or barter; to sell for profit.”  Somewhat less often it is also used as a noun, meaning “dealings, bargaining, communications,” a sense found today almost always in the phrase “to have no truck with,” meaning “to refuse to associate with or tolerate” (“She would have no truck with so-called midwives who practised spells and incantations,” 1952).  This “truck” comes from the Medieval Latin “trocare,” meaning “to barter.”  In the 18th century US, “truck” as a noun developed the more specialized, and slightly odd, meaning of “produce grown for the market,” which is used today almost exclusively in the term “truck farm,” meaning a small farm that sells its produce directly to the public.

The other sort of “truck,” which appeared early in the 17th century, originally meant “small wheel” (from the Greek “trokhos,” wheel), and was originally applied to the small wooden wheels of gun carriages aboard warships.  This “truck” blossomed over the centuries to mean any sort of wheeled cart used to carry heavy cargo, and, eventually, a motor vehicle used to carry freight.  Voila, pickup trucks.

But early on in its history, when “truck” still meant “small wooden wheel,” it developed the specialized meaning of “a small wooden cap or ball at the head of a mast or flagpole,” usually with holes through which lines supporting sails (or flags) could be passed.  The use of “truck” in this sense, which dates back to dates back to around 1626, undoubtedly came from the resemblance of the gizmo to a small wooden wheel.

Incidentally, I said there were two “trucks” in English, which is true, but there once was another “truck,” now considered obsolete and rarely seen today, that bears mentioning.  It’s “truck” meaning “to trudge or tramp along,” from the Italian “truccare,” meaning “to trudge.”  If you’ve ever heard the late 1960s motto “Keep on Truckin’,” popularized by R. Crumb’s Mister Natural cartoons, you’ve met this “truck.”

5 comments to Truck (flagpole)

  • jay

    You misspelled the word. The round, ballish ornament at the top of most flag poles is called a “truk” without the letter “C” and still pronounced “Truck”.

    It represents the “Shot heard around the world”, more commonly known as the start of the Revolutionary War / War of Independence. The “shot heard around the world” is the colloquialism used to refer to the first shots fired in Lexington during the beginning stages of the Revolutionary War / War of Independence.

  • Andrew

    I’ve heard it said that the “truk” was a spillover from navy ships’ yardarm ends, to they contain three articles: a razor, a match and a bullet, to it represents the severed human head of the vanquished army’s leader, as was once stuck on the end of a spear.

    Turns out that none of the “romantic” sybolisms are accurate. It is simply there to keep rain out of a hollow flagpole. They tried an eagle, but the flag kept wrapping around it. It is put on a solid flagpole just to be consistent.

    Sometimes the truth can slap you upside your face!

  • Robert L. Stephens

    The ball (eagle, or whatever) at the top of a flagpole is a finial. The Truck (five letter word) an be made as part of the ball but almost never is. The truck is a device below the finial which allows the halyard to run through it and reverse directions. Check with any flagpole maker and they will tell you that. There is nothing in the finial, and nothing buried in the base, unless some individual place it there. The finial does not represent the “shot heard around the world,” finials being used long before the revolutionary war. I spent many years trying to correct these things while in the Army but people would rather use a good tale than the truth.

  • Robert Barley

    The truck flown on Military flag poles actually show the highest ranking officer in charge.
    Gold Balls

    Eagles
    Stars
    etc

  • Brian Foster

    I don’t know where Mr. Barley got that bit of misinformation, but it is not true. No matter the Fort or Base you go to, you will find a round ball truck (it is not “truk as stated, wrongly, above). at the top of the base’s main flagpole, no matter the rank of the commanding officer, which is almost always a General or Admiral. They are brass, by the way.

    I can understand Mr. Stephen’s position and even sus out how he comes to a finial being the top piece the rest of us know as a truck. Finials are the capping pieces on top of gothic or ornamentation on other structures. So, there’s the ornamentation part.

    Trucks on mast heads and poles were used, as stated earlier, to run lines through for “reeving” flags up the pole or mast. Later, the Truck lost it’s hole and became decorative while a small pulley was used below it for the same job. This also allowed a mast head to carry two sets of signal flags that could be swapped out independently. With a truck, that just wasn’t possible.

    There are plenty of situations where manufacturers refer to some part in one term while the rest of the world uses another.

    Having served in the US Army I can assure you that the device is referred to as a “truck”. Also, as stated above, the belief that there is a pistol, a single round for it, and a razor is false. It’s a romantic idea with no basis in fact.

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