August 08, 2004

Like a fish needs a bicycle

Near the end of his first post this morning on superfluity, Mark notes:

"Fifth wheel" is a common expression for superfluity, common in frames like "feel like a fifth wheel" (538 ghits), but it's not so commonly used in the frame "ADJ as a ___".

I've often noticed that people use "third wheel" instead of "fifth wheel" to mean "the odd person out in a group of three, the other two of which form a couple". (Please excuse the very unimaginative paraphrase.) It seems to be about twice as common as "fifth wheel", judging by the 1,150 ghits I got for "feel like a third wheel" -- probably because it's that much more common for a single person to be hanging out with a single couple.

I've always found "third wheel" a little strange; the prototypical vehicle with the superfluous wheel is a car, not a bike, so it should be "fifth wheel" regardless of the number of people involved. But for many folks it seems that the number is simply a variable part of the expression. (Careful -- some of the following links contain Christian themes, drug use, sex, and in one case some fondling between Harry Potter characters.)

(link) Then, we head out to the Universal City Walk, where we wander in and out of shops until Kathy, Matt, Andy, and Theresa show up. (It's amazing. In the span of about twenty minutes I go from being a third whell to being a fifth wheel to being a seventh wheel.)
(link) I swear, I am the eternal third wheel, or fifth wheel, or seventh wheel, or in one extraordinary case, the 103rd wheel.
(link) I'm tired of always being the one who is the third wheel or fifth wheel or, in tonight's case, the seventh wheel.
(link) My life in school has made me feel like a wheel. A Third Wheel, a Fifth Wheel, and a Seventh Wheel...I just feel like a wheel.
(link) Could be that I'm getting older, or that I'm hanging out with more and more couples (effectively becoming a third wheel, or fifth wheel, or seventh wheel ...)
(link) Though they tried to include me in their activities I generally declined their invitations not wanting to be a third wheel or a fifth wheel or a seventh wheel.
(link) "What is with the whole triple date thing? I feel like a seventh wheel."
(link) While Howard Dean hangs out with the popular crowd, Dennis Kucinich must be feeling a little like a ninth wheel among the Democratic candidates.
(link) After spending almost 24 non stop hours at LAX, the boys and their 'dates' (extras they hit it off with) went to an all-night dancing club. I felt like an eleventh wheel, sitting alone as the others chatted with their new friends.

Examples like the following seem to indicate that "third wheel" has more or less become the default among most speakers -- not because the vehicular prototype has become a bike, but because the three's-a-crowd situation is simply more common.

(link) So you felt like a third wheel along with Benji, Joel and Chris. (thats not really a third wheel right, thats a 5th wheel i think.)

The "third" can of course be overridden as necessary. Googling for "like a(n) ___ wheel", we get the following monotonically decreasing numbers of results:

like a(n) ___ wheel third fifth seventh ninth eleventh thirteenth
whG 1,620 881 10 2 1 0

Interestingly, even-numbered wheels follow a similar path:

like a(n) ___ wheel second fourth sixth eighth tenth twelfth
whG 15 97 5 2 1 0

The dip on "second" is easy to explain: feeling like the odd person out when there's only two of you is rare or just not worthy of discussion. Or perhaps unicycles are just not very good prototypes. Tricycles appear to be fine, though, as some of those 97 ghits explicitly note:

(link) Chris Collinsworth similarly seems like a fourth wheel on a tricycle.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 8, 2004 03:28 PM