Word Nerd: Clearing Hurtles

Columns Education Evergreen Word Nerd

This week, Word Nerd looks at two words that are often mixed up; both are associated with speed, but in entirely different ways.

hurdleHurdle: a barrier over which runners leap; metaphorically, an obstacle to be overcome.

Hurtle: to rush violently; move with great speed.

Hurdle comes from the Old English hyrdel “frame of intertwined twigs used as a temporary barrier,” a diminutive of hyrd “door,” from Proto-Germanic hurdiz “wickerwork frame, hurdle.” It’s related to the Old Saxon hurth “plaiting, netting,” from the Proto-Indo-European root kert- “to weave, twist together” (cf. Sanskrit krt “to spin”). It’s an ancient word, but the modern definition of “a barrier to jump in a race” dates only to the 1800s; the figurative sense of “obstacle” appears in 1924.

Hurtle comes from the early 14th century, from Middle English hurteln, “to crash together; to crash down, knock down.” It’s related to both hurl and hurt.

If you say you have to jump a lot of hurtles, you’re saying you have to jump things that move fast.

If you say the car was hurdling down the highway, you’re saying the car was jumping over barriers.

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