2

I was reading a recent New Yorker article: "How the Promise of Normalcy Won the 1920 Election" (Sept. 14, 2020)

Where the Democratic nominee for President of the US, James M. Cox of Ohio, was quoted as saying

“We stand at the forks of the road and must choose which to follow.”

I had never heard "forks of the road", and have always heard "fork in the road", so I looked up the historical usage from Google's N-Grams, and indeed, "forks of the road" was more commonly used until around 1920. (Maybe if Cox had used the up-and-coming "fork in the road", he would have done better in the election. /s)

ngram dataviz

ngram link


Can anyone shed light on the migration of this metaphor?

Some famous usage of the metaphor are listed here.

  • Both usages are in themselves quite acceptable and idiomatic: [M-W]: fork ... 3a: a division into branches or the place where something divides into branches ... a fork in the road ... 4: one of the branches into which something forks ... the north fork of the river [reformatted] – Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 at 15:37
  • @EdwinAshworth I guess I'm referring specifically to the metaphor "when you come to the/a fork in the road" – philshem Sep 27 at 18:06
  • 1
    That would be the 'forking point' (n-node; n > 2) sense. I'd consider 'We stand at the forks of the road and must choose which to follow.' clumsy at best, and would avoid a zeugma with 'We stand at the / a fork in the road and must choose which fork to follow.' It's a bit unfortunate that the same word serves for both 'n-node as approached along a particular arc' and 'arc distinct from the one we've just traversed'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 at 18:24
1

The Google Ngram is interesting but strange. If you change the language to "British English" by and large, all you get is American writers and books.

I suspected that "fork" was, in fact, a deverbal noun from "to fork" and a synonym of "forking", and this is confirmed by:

OED

  1. [ < the verb.] A forking, bifurcation, or division into branches; the point at which anything forks. Hence, each of the branches into which anything forks.

c. The point at which a river divides into two, or the point of junction of two rivers; a branch or tributary. Chiefly U.S.

1692 in Maryland Hist. Mag. (1906) 1 11 [It is therin described as] Being in the forks of Gunpowder River by the side of the said River.

1877 J. A. Allen Amer. Bisons 515 Great herds on the east fork of the Salmon River.

It will be noted that "fork and forks" are treated equally, although the fork is the point of forking and the forks are each of the new roads.

We then have

d. of a road. 1855 Washington Irving Chron. Wolfert's Roost 371 A fork in the road.

If you look at the example of "fork of the road" for the latter half of the 20th century to the present, the vast majority are historical references, religious writing and/or military, all of which tend to be relatively stable.

Whereas a fork of the road, would indicate the verbal noun, Here, "fork in" has become a deverbal noun - a common noun.

This is a reasonable transition for a verbal noun to make with increased use. (NB whereas references to "forks of a river" would remain reasonably constant because of its rarity, "fork(s) of/in a road" would increase with the rise of automobile traffic.)

The difficulty is that the graph, as far as it is accurate, shows a separation starting about 1925 coinciding with car travel but accelerating violently after 1985.

This seems to be simply popularisation:

A Fork in the Road (The Miracles song) - Wikipedia 1984

A fork in the road makes an ppearance in The Muppet Movie: https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/Fork_in_the_Road

and at sometime before 1988, Yogi Berra (allegedly) uttered the immortal words "If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/25/fork-road/ Although this seems to be a reprise of a 1913 witticism, it must have helped publicise the construction.

In summary then the change is probably due to cars and the transition from verbal to deverbal noun followed by popularisation.

| improve this answer | |
  • thanks - great answer! – philshem Sep 27 at 18:52
  • In the mid-1980s, Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight Show, had a bit called "Teatime Movie" that included a map (a tangle of Los Angeles freeways) which one followed until one came to "the fork in the road," with a picture of a table fork on the map. Fast verbal slapstick, still good for laughs. – Xanne Sep 28 at 0:08
1

I can remember that, when I was in elementary school around 1960, there was a popular children's song (in school songbooks) that went something like:

See you tomorrow
See you tomorrow
Fork in the road
Mine leads up the hill
Jack takes the road
That leads to the mill
Jack has my compass
And I have his knife
Jack swore and I swore
Friendship for life
See you tomorrow
See you tomorrow
Jack swore and I swore
Friendship for life

Apparently this song was resurrected in the early 2000s, but I don't doubt that it could go back to the 30s, or earlier. The familiarity of children with this song could explain the uptick in popularity for "fork in the road" ca 1970.

| improve this answer | |
  • Interesting. I can't find any reference to that song by searching by the lyrics. – philshem Sep 27 at 18:07
  • 1
    @philshem - There's at least one version on Youtube, though it's been jazzed up a bit. – Hot Licks Sep 27 at 18:19
  • can you share a link, please! – philshem Sep 27 at 18:31
  • 1
    @philshem - youtu.be/8aqALiyvLTY?t=180 – Hot Licks Sep 27 at 18:34

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.