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shameless pleading

Bar ditch

Dig it.

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.”

11 comments to Bar ditch

  • John

    As a native of North Mississippi, I grew up with the term “borrow pit,” and I was born quite a bit later than 1893. After moving away years ago, I realized that my home state was often last to accept new trends. I look forward to the arrival of “bar ditch” somewhere around mid-century.

  • Scott F

    I grew up in Kansas – they just called them ditches. Lived in OK for 2 years and all they talked about were bar ditches. When I naively asked how that was different from a regular ditch, they all looked at me like I was crazy. No one could ever explain this, so I read this with great enjoyment and some nostalgia

  • Bud Short

    I am a civil engineer and have been designing and building roads for more than 35 years. The article is correct. The ditches are cut and the spoil dirt is mounded up between the ditches to raise the road grade. The dirt is “borrowed” from the ditches to create the road crown therefore “borrow ditch” shortened in the south the way they do in the south is now “bar ditch”.

  • David A.

    Well, Bud is on the right track in explaining what the term is. The term is spelled “borrow ditch” when committed to writing but when using the unique oral skills of a true Southerner it is phonetically pronounced as illustrated above “Bar-aahd ditch”. Unfortunately those who are not used to hearing such dialect think they are hearing “bar ditch”. Thus the confusion.

  • Starla Medlin

    we here in texas believed it was called this because that is where you usually ended up after a night at the bars drinking and partying.

  • terri@texascuisine.com

    It must be true they had it on the internet…

  • Russ

    I grew up in Missouri and we learned about bar ditches as barrow ditch from the digging of a parallel ditch to a wayward river or waterway to form a levee to contain the water in times of flood. My Grandparents hab a farm and the bar ditch seperated their farm to protect it from winter floods of the river a mile or so from the house.

  • When I was a child growing up in Texas in the 1950s, I asked my grandmother Olivia Bozeman Adams, who was born in Texas in 1891, why the ditches beside a road were called bar ditches. She explained immediately that when communities built a road they dug two ditches using dredges and mules and piled the removed soil in the middle, trampelled it down and added gravel if available. She recalled that they were originally called ‘borry’ ditches by the people making the roads in her community when she was a child. Many Texas still pronounce the word ‘borrow’ as ‘borry.’

  • Sharon R. Flores

    hahaha, don’t know why I woke up at 3:00 this AM and remembered my dad calling it a bar ditch (as in, We found you in a bar ditch; that’s why you’re our daughter). Yep, I’m from Texas. Thanks for the memories!

  • Tom Sylvester

    I also am an engineer. I have heard the old horse drawn skips or skids were also called “barrows” similar to wheelbarrows. The skid could be lowered (or the wheel raised) to pick up a load. When full, the wheel was than lowered and the horses could haul it to the to the mound between the ditches for the roadway. Barrow ditches thence were the places that the barrows gathered their material.

    So I guess you can say that the barrow borrowed the dirt from the barrow (borrow) ditch to make the barrow (mound) for the road.

  • R. C. White

    Tom, in my part of Oklahoma, “barrow” words were often pronounced “bar”, especially when I was a boy (born in 1935). Other “arrow” words rhymed: We played with “bows and ars”, used a “har” (harrow) to rake our plowed fields; ate the “bonemar” (marrow) out of beef bones; and drove some pretty “nar” (narrow) roads with bar ditches on either side. And carried dirt and other stuff in “wheelbars”. To us, “borrow ditch”, “barrow ditch” and “bar ditch” would sound pretty much the same.

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