Hen’s nests and potholes

Nid de poule

One French expression that came up last night was nid-de-poule (hen’s nest), which sounds much more interesting than it’s English equivalent, pothole.

The English word pothole can refer to a number of things, including:

– a hole formed in rock by stones in water or glacial erosion;
– underground passages, shafts and chambers formed by water erosion;
– a pond formed by water collecting in a natural hollow (mainly in North American English)
– a shallow hole dug in the ground while prospecting (mainly in Australia)
– a depression or hollow in a road or track
[source]

Another French word for the kind of pothole that occurs in road is fondrière, from fondre (to melt), while the kind of pothole found underground is a caverne, grotte or gouffre. The French equivalent of potholing is spéléologie and a spéléleogue / spéléo (potholer) is said to faire de la spéléologie (to go potholing), an activity known as spelunking or caving in American English. The word speleology is also used to some extent in English and comes, via the French spéléleogue and Latin spēlæum, from the Greek σπήλαιον (spí̱laion – cave) plus λογία (logia). The adjective spelaean means ‘cave-dwelling’.

The word potholing apparently originated in the north of England and refers to the act of exploring potholes, which in this case refers to vertical caves.

Do any of you go caving / potholing / spelunking? If you do, what do you call it?

Are there interesting words for potholes (in roads) in other languages?

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This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language, Words and phrases.

7 Responses to Hen’s nests and potholes

  1. LandTortoise says:

    The Spanish for the type of pothole in a road surface is “bache”. I have no idea as to the origins of this word….maybe the learned readers may be able to inform.

  2. Petréa Mitchell says:

    I learned the word “spelunking” as a kid, but mainly as one of those interesting-sounding words that never gets used.

    My boss goes caving on his vacations, a great way of truly being out of the office. (“Sure, I’ll send him an e-mail about that, but I believe he’s somewhere underneath Kentucky right now…”)

  3. Andrew says:

    Odd, I’ve never heard the term pothole used to refer to anything other than a hole in the asphalt on the road.

  4. Yenlit says:

    ‘Potholing’ is the preferred name in the UK for the hobbie of exploring caves whereas ‘spelunking’, ‘spelunker’ if you’d never heard the word before almost sounds like it could be a slangy term straight outta the urban dictionary website no doubt with a colourful, scatological definition?
    I’ve never been potholing myself although I have been on tourist trips to caves before in the past namely, The Caves of Drach (Cuevas del Drach) in Mallorca.
    You probably won’t find ‘ogofa’ in the dictionary but I think that is the Welsh for potholing, caving and a potholer is ‘ogofwr’, ‘ogofäwr’ or ‘ogofâwr’ (ogof = cave). A pothole in the road is ‘ceudwll’ or ‘ceubwll’ meaning a ‘hollow pit’, cavern.

  5. dreaminjosh says:

    I have never heard of “potholing” before- and actually, spelunking sounds less “slangy” to me than “potholing” as it seems closer to the Latin and Greek.

  6. Yenlit says:

    If somebody asked if you’re a ‘spelunker’ in the UK you’d probably think you’ve just been insulted? The word looks and sounds like a combination of two other Brit swear words, mind you, come to think of it ‘potholing’ doesn’t sound that innocent either?!
    I was about to say that speleology or spelaeology (Welsh – ogofeg, speleologist – ogofegwr) is more the scientific study of caves in respect of their geological formation and flora and fauna while potholing is the sport or pastime of exploring caves. But just checking the word out in the dictionary it doesn’t make that distinction and lists both meanings under the one term of ‘speleology’ although ‘potholing’ is marked as British usage while ‘spelunking’ has no usage definition.

  7. Michael says:

    i’ve used the term “spelunking” since childhood. i guess its origins are from “speleology”?