Really now, what is a Turnpike?

February 23, 2007

Turnpikes and toll roads are some of the jewels that litter the East Coast landscape. Today I found myself compelled to study the etymology of the word Turnpike. I figured there would be an interesting story behind it, and there was.

First I tried pulling the word apart in my mind, but the only pikes I knew of were those ill tempered fish with big teeth and Pike of Pikes Peak. I figured a Turnpike didn’t have anything to do with those, so I assumed it was simply more backwards Yankee New England gibberish and decided to Wiki it (I am a self proclaimed Wikiwhore).

Turns out Turnpike is simply an outmoded term for toll road, the word originates from a long stick (which they called a pike) that was held across the road which was raised or turned aside when the traveler paid the toll.

Modern turnpikes don’t use sticks, and they don’t turn anything. We use traffic gates, and they go up and down. Before EZ-Pass this made sense, but now I think the term turnpike has out lived its usefulness. It’s lingering in our vocabulary today only because somebody lacks the balls to suggest deprecating it.

Maybe I stand alone here on this one, but I think “toll road” is much more easily understood and recognized by a much larger percentage of the population.

I think they should change the name…OR BRING BACK THE STICKS!!!

For more reading on the wonder and majesty of Turnpikes checkout this link…

13 Responses to “Really now, what is a Turnpike?”

  1. 8r13n Says:

    Looking at my blog stats I can see that this is one of my most popular posts, and yet there are no comments. What gives people? That creeps me out.

  2. Jon Besenyei Says:

    Dear Brien,

    I also wondered as to the origin of this antiquated and absurd word. I believe this word is taken at face value and internalized into the collective unconscious. This word is understood by everyone and no-one.

    Thanks for the comments and definition.


  3. Marly Says:

    I found your article googleling Turnpike, i’m Belgian and on our honeymoon trough Amerika I never fount out what a turnpike was. i assumed it was a kind of place where you can go from one highway to another. But today i was listening to Paul Simon’s song, ‘looking for america’ (i love that song) and wanted to know for sure what it was.
    thanks for the artikel and greetz form belguim!

  4. waterhouse Says:

    Well I’ll be… Another Belgian here, googling the meaning of the word (which I encountered in an Andy Kessler book). Perhaps us Belgians are a very curious lot. Or perhaps “turnpike” is a blind spot in our otherwise pretty good English vocabulary. đŸ˜‰

    Whatever it is, now we know. Thanks Brien.

  5. ana Says:

    Thanks Brien, I live in the west coast and never knew what it meant other than a lot of jokes often refer to turnpikes for example the “New Jersey turnpike” and that it was some type of highway that maybe connected to another. But it was the word “turn” that always baffled me. So today after reading the news about the accident that occurred on the Oklahoma turnpike, I had to know for once and for all. Thanks Thanks Brien for you excellent definition and story of what a turnpike is!

  6. Mari Says:

    I’m new to the east coast and had no clue what a turnpike was! I thought it might be some special scenic route and discovered all of is is a toll road! back in the Midwest we just call it what it is.

  7. rcolucci Says:

    Thanks for the definition and history behind the word. However I don’t think the term should be changed. I think it has an east coast charm and history to it.

    • 8r13n Says:

      East coast charm? …You mean like what Snookie has? Seriously, I lived on the east coast for about three years. Maybe there used to be something like east coast charm, but it died with Sinatra.

  8. Alan Says:

    Well the word originated in England in the early 1700 s, and that is that.
    Funny thing that the word turnpike in norwegian translates as gymnastic girl (turn means gymnastics and pike is one of several words for girl)

  9. Mike H Says:

    I have heard the word Turnpike in US-centric news/media/TV/Movies for years but never knew what it was – I thought it was an exit ramp for a highway. I heard it in a Billy Joel song (“You’re my home” refers to the Pennsylvania Turnpike ) so googled it and found your blog. Thanks.

  10. toonces1 Says:

    Hello There,

    I live on the East Cost, Long Island NY, and we have a number of turnpikes that, today, are not toll roads. Though I can imagine they may have been in years gone by.

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