A quick post today from the vocabulary files. This one’s about something that most of us see many times every day, but don’t know the word for. In fact, most of us don’t know there’s even a word for it. These objects are so common and unobtrusive, they just blend into the background—we don’t consciously register them unless they become an inconvenience.
The object and the word for it is bollard.
A small minority of people already know and use this word. Many sailors are familiar with it. Anyone who works in traffic control or road work probably knows it, as will many architects and security specialists. Outside those fields and a few others, this isn’t a term people encounter much in American English (although in British English the word is significantly more common).
What is a bollard?
In modern use, a bollard is a device used for traffic control. More precisely, they’re used to prevent motor vehicle traffic from entering a specific area. You’re most likely to encounter them as metal posts about one meter high, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some are concrete only, some are steel-reinforced concrete, some are concrete sheathed in steel. Some aren’t even posts, and might take more decorative shapes, perhaps also serving as planters or trash cans. Those big red concrete spheres in front of most Target stores? Bollards. Some are even plastic, and can be moved quickly and easily: you’ve probably seen this style at road construction sites—tall, skinny, orange
posts with reflective bands.
Some bollards aren’t terribly tough. They’re meant as a deterrent to keep drivers from veering into a work zone or parking on the sidewalk, or from taking their vehicles down bike paths or into pedestrian-only areas. Simply by having some form of obstacle (a bollard), most drivers will get the message, even if a lot of those bollards wouldn’t stop a vehicle with a determined driver. But increasingly, much more serious bollards are being installed.
These devices are sturdy—strong enough to stop a car at speed. In fact, many of them, especially the ones meant for high security areas, are able to stop large trucks (if you want to see just how effective these are, google “bollard truck test” and browse the images; this very short video of a test is also revealing, although if you’re more of a “greatest hits” person, try this one). They’re typically made of some variety of structural steel and, when properly installed, very little on wheels will make it past them. They meet rigorous standards for impact (at least one of ISO IWA 14-1, BSi PAS 68, or ASTM F2656-07, if you’re interested).
I’ve had reason to get to know bollards, at least passively, because some editing and writing work over the past couple of years has led me off into traffic safety. My first (incorrect) impression was that the word was most likely old, but obscure. I suspected it was probably a British import to the US (correct), possibly from French (incorrect).
It turns out bollard is a fairly recent word in English: the OED cites a first print use only from 1844. At that time it was a nautical term, indicating the large post on a wharf used as the point to tie up ships. Of course, these posts were used long before that, they simply went by other names (“posts” being one, “knights-heads” another, “bitt” possibly another). Bollards could also exist aboard a ship, not necessarily in the same form but serving a similar purpose (securing ropes and lines). The specific etymology of the word is unknown; it branches off (no pun intended) from the same Middle English word that became bole (the trunk of a tree), which might have come through German from Old Norse—but this isn’t definitive (no matter how many times you see it online).
Traffic bollards are (probably) the later innovation (and certainly a later word usage). OED lists a first use in this sense from 1948. But objects serving that purpose, known locally as Amsterdammertjes, were in use in Amsterdam possibly as early as 1800. Images included in the Wikipedia entry for bollard show them in contemporary illustrations from 1742 and 1766, proving that the idea—if not the name—existed before then. That Wikipedia reference (trust it at your peril) suggests that the concept was being used in London by no later than 1721. To blow a little more fog over the term, Merriam-Webster
claims a 1763 first use for the word (but doesn’t provide a citation: their online dictionary is deficient that way). That’s 80 years earlier than the OED’s reliable citation.
This is one of those situations where it would be useful if an American dictionary included the first known American use of a word as a data point. Did the word skip right across the Atlantic into the specialized vocabulary of traffic engineers as early as the 1950s? Did it seep in during the ’80s or ’90s? Or was it only recruited after 9/11, when anti-vehicle security became more of a concern? Determining that will take more research than I have time for.
Now that you know about bollards, you’re going to see them everywhere…like standpipes and the fnords. It’s not just you, though—there really are more of them out there everyday.