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.”