Dear Word Detective: I’ve lived most of my life in the southern US, and for most of that time I’ve heard about “bar ditches” beside the road. It has been explained to me that the name refers to the fact that the dirt that makes the “crown” in the center of the road was “bar-aahd” from the ditches. I have been unimpressed by this explanation for forty-five or fifty years now. Any suggestions? — Stewart Bolerjack.
Hey, we live on a road like that, with no shoulder and deep ditches on both sides. You do not wanna end up in one of those ditches. Our road is supposedly two lanes, but it’s been more like 1.5 lanes since the county “improved” it a few years ago. (Our neighbor said, “Jeez, that’s how they build roads in Texas,” which apparently wasn’t a compliment.) People wonder why folks out in the sticks tend to be more religious than city dwellers, and I think it’s partly these roads. There’s nothing like seeing one of the local honor students futzing with his cell phone while he’s coming at you doing 55 in his daddy’s F-350 to suddenly put questions of eternity at the top of your personal agenda.
That “bar-aahd” (“borrowed”) explanation of “bar ditch” that you find unimpressive is, I see from the internet, very widespread. I’ve also heard that a “bar ditch” is so-called because, if you drive your car into one, you might as well start walking to the nearest bar and have a few beers while you wait for the tow truck. A more serious explanation for the term, found in Texas and reported by the Dictionary of American Regional English, says that the name “bar ditch” comes from the fact that it “bars” cattle and sheep from wandering onto the road. If there’s any truth to that being the intention behind the ditches, somebody needs to tell the cows that wander the roads around here.
The funny thing about the “bar-aahd” theory you’ve heard is that it may very well be true. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the term “borrow-pit” from 1893, which it defines as “In civil engineering, an excavation formed by the removal of material to be used in filling or embanking,” and notes that it “apparently” comes from the verb “to borrow.” It seems entirely possible that “borrow pit” became “barrow pit” or “barrow ditch” (which is almost as common in the US as “bar ditch”) and then “bar ditch.” The fact that the earth removed from such ditches is indeed frequently used to form the foundation of these roads is a powerful argument for this theory.
There is, however, a complicating factor, which is the existence of the very old English word “barrow,” meaning “mound or hill,” which first appeared in Old English and is still found in place names. It is possible that the “bar” in “bar ditch,” as well as the “barrow” in “barrow ditch,” come from this “barrow,” rather than from “borrow.” At this point “barrow” and “borrow” are so entwined in usage of the term that it’s impossible to pin down the exact origin of “bar ditch.”
Incidentally, if that “barrow” sounds familiar, it’s probably because of “wheelbarrow,” but there’s no connection between the terms. The “barrow” of “wheelbarrow” is a different word, dating back to the early 14th century and originally meaning a kind of platform with handles (like a wooden stretcher) used to carry heavy things. A “barrow” required at least two people to carry it until some genius decided to add a wheel to the front and created the “wheelbarrow.” The old, un-wheeled barrow is now known as a “handbarrow.”