Why are pot holes called pot holes?

By pot holes I mean those holes in a road surface.

  • 1
    Because they are the size and shape of pots? – Mari-Lou A Feb 7 '14 at 18:13
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    It also means that circular hole. Pot holes are usually circular in shape – Thanigainathan Feb 7 '14 at 18:25

According to Etymonline,

pothole (n.) 1826, originally a geological feature in glaciers and gravel beds, from Middle English pot "a deep hole for a mine, or from peat-digging" (late 14c.), now generally obsolete, but preserved in Scotland and northern England dialect… Applied to a hole in a road from 1909.

Oxford suggests that the M.E. pot meaning "pit" may be of Scandinavian origin.

The French nid-de-poule (hen’s nest) is much more colorful.

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  • 1
    Pothole is far from obsolete! Caves with small entrances in limestone are known as potholes. There is a large community of potholers whose hobby is to explore the things. – Chenmunka Feb 7 '14 at 19:25
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    @Chenmunka The entry is saying pot by itself meaning a deep hole is obsolete in general usage— not pot hole and not pot as it may be used in jargon. – choster Feb 7 '14 at 19:27
  • interesting i always thought it was a derivative of Old English “pocc,” meaning “pustule, blister, ulcer.”, though wouldn't surprise me to find out both have the same origin if you go back far enough – MikeT Mar 10 at 10:40

According to pothole.info, the holes in roads were named in analogy to "pot-holes" where a river or stream has cut a similar hole in the bed, about the size and shape of a cooking pot.

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  • I Googled "potholes.info" it led me to a page asking if I wanted to buy the domain. – Mari-Lou A Feb 7 '14 at 20:05
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    it is actually pothole.info. I added the link to the answer. – Oldcat Feb 7 '14 at 20:09
  • It's actually an informative page, maybe you should quote a more extensive piece. – Mari-Lou A Feb 7 '14 at 20:13

According to the OED, the origin of pot in this sense is uncertain. It may be from the Old Swedish potter, meaning 'a hole, well or abyss'.

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One suggested answer to this question:

When Rome finally took Britain they built the roads as usual. The Brouillette never really succumbed to Roman order and it was at the end of the Roman reign anyway. When the Romans left Britain they left the roads, and the Britons kept them, because they were constructed well. They built on top of the Roman roads with a heavy layer of clay.

When times got tough the potters couldn't afford to buy clay to make their pots, so they dug holes in the road down to the layer of that thick clay and stole it. In the morning, when the Teamsters drove by, and nearly wrecked the wagons in the holes, they cursed those damn Potters and the potholes anyway.

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  • 4
    This sounds like an urban legend. But I found one site that repeats part of this: vah.com/departments/public_works/potholes.aspx (totally coincidentally, this is the town I live in). – Barmar Apr 2 '15 at 19:43
  • I upvoted you, for no other reason than to revert the downvote trolling inflicted by others. – Krythic May 3 '19 at 16:29



noun: pothole; plural noun: potholes

etymology: pothole

early 19th century: from Middle English pot ‘pit’ (perhaps of Scandinavian origin) + hole.
- Google.com

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