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Are You a "Big Wheel" or a "Fifth Wheel"?

Now, the weekly program Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program, we explore the history and usage of common expressions in American English.

Today we explore expressions using the word “wheel.”

The first wheels, it is believed, were not used for transportation. They were created to serve as potter’s wheels around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia.

The invention of the wheel was a big deal for humanity. And we can be proud of our ancient human ancestors. So, after going through all that trouble of inventing something like the wheel, it is foolish to reinvent it.

This gives us our first expression: to reinvent the wheel.

To reinvent the wheel means to waste a lot of time or effort to create something that already exists.

For example, in the United States there are many schools that have Parent Teacher Associations (PTA.) These groups let parents help teachers in many different way. So, if you are a parent who wants to start a PTA at your child’s school, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You can simply copy the structure already created by many thousands of parents many times over.

However, one man actually did reinvent the wheel.

By 2001, Australia had introduced a new, online patent system. This system did not require a lawyer.

So, a patent lawyer in Australia wanted to prove the system was flawed. So, he submitted a patent application for a “circular transportation facilitation device.”

His “wheel” was given a patent, and he proved his point.

Just as the wheel is an important invention, a big wheel is an important person.

Like gears in a large machine, the big wheel makes the other smaller wheels turn. The same can be said for a person. A big wheel is powerful and can affect other people. The phrase “big wheel” came into use during World War II.

As the big wheels are the ones with the power, they are usually the ones doing the wheeling and dealing.

To wheel and deal means to make business or political deals, especially in a dishonest way. For example, the wheeling and dealing of Wall Street brokers helped create the 2008 real estate crash in the United States.

If we talk about important people, like a big wheel, we should also talk about unimportant people. They can be called a fifth wheel. A car only needs four wheels to operate. So, the “fifth wheel” is unnecessary. A “fifth wheel” is someone who is not needed or who is being ignored in a situation.

You will also hear some people use the phrase third wheel. It means the same thing but refers to a bicycle needing only two wheels to operate and not three.

Whether you are driving a car or riding a bike, it is important to keep wheels running smoothly. So, sometimes a good idea to grease them. Nothing is more annoying than a squeaky wheel. Maybe that is why we say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

This idiom means that the problem complained about most loudly, usually gets fixed first. Some word historians say this idiom comes from the American writer Josh Billings. He wrote the poem, “The Kicker,” in 1870.

I hate to be a kicker,

I always long for peace,

But the wheel that does the squeaking,

Is the one that gets the grease.

You will also hear some people exchange the word “grease” for “oil,” but the meaning remains the same.

Most Americans drive and own a car. American English has many expressions that come from our car culture. One important driving lesson we learn very early is to not drive when you are tired. Falling asleep at the wheel is dangerous and can get you or others killed.

To be asleep at the wheel is also an expression in American English. It means you are being careless and you don’t notice what is going on around you. If someone falls asleep at the wheel, they are careless at work or are not taking their responsibilities seriously.

Let’s listen to this example.

Imagine there is a tour company that is doing very well. They successful operate for years, supplying quality tours and vacations. And, they have many repeat customers.

Then the president of the company retires and names her son to take her place. But he does not want the job and does not give it the attention it needs. His best friend, who makes mistakes often, is in charge of hotel reservations. The new president puts too many people on tours. He fails to pay money back to unsatisfied customers. Everything falls apart in a matter of months.

You could say the new president was asleep at the wheel. He lost control of the company, just like a sleeping person would lose control at the wheel of a car.

Now, when you say your wheels are turning it means you are having an idea. When the wheels and gears of a machine turn, things start working. We say the same thing about the brain.

To set the wheels in motion means to begin something. But if you are spinning your wheels, you are not beginning anything. This comes from trying to drive in mud or on ice. The car’s wheels cannot grip the surface. They spin and spin in place and don’t go anywhere.

That brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories and our exploration of the word “wheel.”

Hopefully, we did a good job and will not be accused of falling asleep at the wheel.

I’m Anna Matteo.


Words in This Story

potter – n. a person who makes pots, bowls, plates, etc., out of clay : a person who makes pottery by hand

foolish – adj. having or showing a lack of good sense or judgment

patent – n. protected by a trademark or a brand name so as to establish proprietary rights analogous to those conveyed by letters patent or a patent

broker – n. a person who helps other people to reach agreements, to make deals, or to buy and sell property such as stocks or houses

crash – n. a sudden decline (as of a population) or failure (as of a business) <a stock market crash>

grease – n. an oily substance

tour company – n. a journey through the different parts of a country, region, etc.

reservation – n. an arrangement to have something (such as a room, table, or seat) held for your use at a later time

customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business

grip – v. to grab or hold tightly

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