Dear Word Detective: I was strolling through our local tire shop recently when one of those “Why hasn’t this occurred to me before?” questions popped into my head: is there any connection between the “tires” a car runs on and the word “tired,” meaning fatigued? If so, is it because they eventually wear out, or what? — Dan.
Your “local tire shop,” eh? You have just one? Around here we have at least one every hundred yards or so; tire shops are almost as numerous as nail salons. One wonders why no one has yet combined the businesses into a shop called “Tires & Nails.” On second thought, I think I know.
There is, alas, no relation between the rubber doughnut that cars and truck roll on called a “tire” and the verb “to tire,” meaning to make or become fatigued (of which “tired” is a participial form). But both these “tires” are interesting words in their own right, so we’ll take that fact as a consolation prize.
The verb “to tire” is the older of the two, first appearing in Old English as “tiorian,” meaning “to diminish, come to an end, fail.” The origins of this “tire” are uncertain, but it may come from an Indo-European root with the sense “to lack.” By the 15th century “tire” was in common use in both intransitive and transitive forms, meaning, respectively, “to become exhausted” and “to make weary, to exhaust.” The early senses of both forms referred to literal physical exhaustion from hard labor or exertion, but by the 16th century our modern figurative uses of “tire” appeared, meaning “to be exhausted by repetition or excess; to become sick of” (intransitive) and “to make someone sick of something; to bore” (transitive).
The vehicular sort of “tire” dates back to the 15th century, and at that time meant the curved pieces of iron plate (called “strakes”) fastened around the edges of wooden carriage wheels to minimize wear (essentially horseshoes for wagon wheels). “Tires” eventually became continuous strips of metal, then inflated rubber tubes, and the modern tire shop was born.
The noun “tire,” however, had actually appeared in English more than 200 years earlier than its first “wheel” use, initially meaning simply “dress, apparel, covering,” which makes perfect sense because “tire” is simply an aphetic, or clipped form, of the familiar noun “attire,” meaning “clothing, costume, equipment or ornamentation.” The noun “attire” comes from the verb, meaning originally “to put in order, prepare” (from the Old French “atirier,” put in order).
Today we use “attire” to mean “clothing” or “personal outfit,” and the shortened form “tire” is used almost exclusively to mean those air-filled rubber things on your wheels, so there’s very little overlap. I do worry a bit, however, about those students who may, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, come across a line using “tire” in the old “clothing” sense, e.g., “You in Grecian tires are painted new.” Today that probably sounds like someone is restoring a classic car.