Hurtles and hurdles

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Nicholas Thompson, "Terrible News About Carbon and Climage Change", The New Yorker 5/12/2013:

We’ve got more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any point since the Pliocene, when there were jungles in northern Canada. And the number hurdles ever upward, as ocean levels rise and extreme weather becomes routine. Three-fifty was the old target; four-fifty is the new one. But what indication is there that we’ll stop at five hundred, six hundred, or even more?

The OED (in an entry not updated since 1899) calls hurtle, v. "Now only literary or arch.", giving the etymology as

apparently a diminutive and iterative of hurt v., in its original sense of ‘strike with a shock’.

One sense that remains active in contemporary journalistic use is "6. To dash, rush, hurry; esp. with noise", perhaps because of resonance with hurry and hurl. (Though the "with noise" part seems to have withered away…)

The half-dozen most recent uses in the NYT are:

Without any changes, over the next decade or so, the gross federal debt, now nearly $17 trillion, will hurtle toward $30 trillion and soar to 150 percent of gross domestic product from around 105 percent today.

At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs, the jaw muscles sense the yielding and reflexively let up. Without that reflex, the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another, now with no intact nut between.

You reach down and take a small hand, and joined, you hurtle toward the future.

It was one of the premier skiing venues in the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, drawing up to 5,000 people to watch top skiers like Dick Durrance hurtle past them on seven-foot-long wooden skis.

The combination is lethal, and as I hurtle toward the end of my 30s, my guilt has gone rogue.

But Mr. Obama’s effort to define success on his terms is coming up against two primary counterarguments as the White House and Congress hurtle toward the next budget showdown in coming weeks.

For most Americans, hurtle is pronounced exactly the same way as hurdle. And hurdle, in addition to being commoner than hurtle (about 7.69 per million for the "hurdle" and "hurdles" in COCA, compared to 0.60 for "hurtle" and "hurtles"), has the advantage of referring to a concrete type of object and a specific associated action.

This creates the perfect situation for eggcorn creation: a relatively rare and somewhat archaic word that is pronounced in just the same way as another word that is much more common in everyday usage, and has a clear meaning that overlaps at least metaphorically with most examples of the more unusual word.

If you hurtle through or towards something, you don't necessarily hurdle any obstacles — but if there were any obstacles in your way, you probably would hurdle them. And the idea of moving quickly without regard for obstacles is not a bad proxy for the usual uses of hurtle.

Given all this, it's surprising that hurdle for hurtle is apparently not very common — it's not in the Eggcorn Database, and news or book searches for some obvious cases (e.g. "hurdle recklessly"  or "hurdle toward") don't turn up many relevant examples. But it's Out There:

From Financial World at some point in the 1950s:

For another — in electronics — we expect gross to hurdle upward 160% and net income to climb from 51 a share to around $1.30.

From The Adélie Penguin: Bellwether of Climate Change:

The seals lurk below and hurdle upward, crashing through the soft ice to snare a penguin.

A few examples from a Google News search:

The remaining survivors are huddled together on the titular train that hurdles through brutal landscapes of ice and endless snow.

“Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go and we’ll walk in the sun,” Springsteen croons as the song hurdles toward its titanic finale, “But until then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

One of New Jersey's most famous boardwalks, in Seaside Heights, is hurdling toward completion as well.

You can double jump, which sends your robot unicorn hurdling into the air while it expels a rainbow.

We're hurdling towards the end of the term and graduation.

After seeing 40 oz. glass bottles hurdling through the air, I wasn't surprised at the injuries we saw.

Her death again sent the home hurdling toward foreclosure and possible demolition.

The Eagles actually beat the Ravens last season in week 2, 24-23 to begin the season 2-0 before hurdling into the NFC East's abyss.

Hysterical! Screaming flower girl goes hurdling down the aisle.  (link to video)

[h/t to Monte Davis]


  1. Paul Mulshine said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    As the father of a girl who ran the 400-meter hurdles in high school, I see a useful distinction between the two words.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    She hurtled around the track, hurdling hurdles. When she won, the bouquet her father, Paul, hurtled toward her caught her square in the stomach, and she immediately hurled. Meanwhile, outside the stadium, a hurdy-gurdy played.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    Perhaps it takes the unusually painstaking editorial process of the New Yorker to get such an eggcorn properly introduced to polite society?

  4. richardelguru said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    OT-ish,but I'm sorry I can't resist the call of the Bellwether:
    …I was reading, in the State of the Industry column by Rachel Parker in the weekly computer magazine InfoWorld, under the heading ‘We Must Learn How to Manage The Computers We Depend On,’ (which is a startlingly novel idea for a start) about Sun Microsystems, a very high tech high-tech company, having terrible difficulties and (horror!) loosing money when they changed the computers that, in effect, ran their company: her message more or less being, “if these guys, at the forefront of the industry could screw it up what about the rest of us?” She expressed her concerns in a memorable, frightening phrase, and a phrase that absolutely forced me to include this particular example, “Sun’s example," she wrote, "should be a bellwether in a rough sea…”

    … I, of course, immediately took telephone under chin, and called both the Animal Liberation Front and PETA to apprise them of the fact that InfoWorld definitely has an animal laboratory and that some pretty weird stuff is obviously going on in it in the name of testing computers. I mean—Oh, the dreadful image that “a bellwether in a rough sea” conjures up. The darkling sky stabbed with lightning; the roar of thunder; the wind whistling; the waves crashing; the spume spewing! And this little woolly head desperately trying to keep itself above water; and round its little woolly neck a big bell: and in the momentary silences of the storm a plaintive “Baa-aa, baa-aa, tinkle, tinkle, glub, glub, glub…”: (sniff) and maybe, since a bellwether is after all the lead sheep, straggling out behind it, you can just make out the waterlogged fleecy backs of the rest of the flock trying sadly to follow their leader.

    Oh! I can’t go on, it’s too horrid I…
    It's too much even for a pessimist so…
    ( from an essay written back in '06)

  5. Faldone said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

    @richardelguru: I thought of you immediately upon reading the line about the bellwether in a rough sea. As I went on in your post it became more and more obvious that that was what you were referring to. As I plowed the seas further it became more and more obvious that it was, indeed, you. Thank you for reviving this wonderful essay. My wife and I were in stitches when we heard it on Weekend Radio.

  6. Aaron Binns said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    There are 20,842 pages from the 1995-2000 web archive with the word "hurtle" somewhere on the page. It looks like most instances are as a proper name of some sort or another.

  7. Chris C. said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    When she won, the bouquet her father, Paul, hurtled toward her caught her square in the stomach

    That's "hurled": "to throw or fling with great force or vigor." The sense of "to vomit" is metaphorical.

  8. Rebecca said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

    I was hoping "climage" was real, but alas, it's jst a typo. I think I'll start using it anyway.

  9. Bobbie said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    I keep thinking about Yertle the Turtle. (The lyrics do not include Hurdle or Hurtle.)

  10. David Morris said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

    Is this substitution (or equivalent d/t substitutions) more likely in varieties of English where d and t are pronounced (more or less) the same in these contexts, than in varieties where they are distinct? In my idiolect (more or less standard Australian English) 'hurtle' and 'hurdle' have distinct pronunciations.

    (Though one of my students just processed my pronunciation of 'badminton' as 'batminton' – possibly because of the association of 'sports' and 'bat'. He is Thai, which I have just checked has a th/t/d distinction.)

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    @David Morris: Yes, but Thai (like many other sensible languages) neutralises the voicing/aspiration distinction syllable-finally, so I think this is probably about L1 interference with L2, not semantic associations with bat.

  12. richardelguru said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 6:12 am

    @David Morris: poor 'badminton' suffers a lot.
    Most Americans I know seem to say something like 'badmitten' (presumably one of those lost by the naughty kittens) and most Britons intrude a 'g' to make it 'badmington'.

  13. David Morris said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 7:15 am

    I remember a boy at a church boys club many years ago calling it badminting.

  14. xyzzyva said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 7:17 am

    @David Morris,
    Are you sure you pronounce them distinctly? Intervocalic alveolar flapping is standard in Australian English, too.

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    @richardelguru: it's nice to know they let their money loose before they headed out to sea, at least.

  16. richardelguru said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 8:20 am

    @ Rod: I am not now, nor have I ever been, much of a poof reedar.
    (And anyway it was probably just lose change for Sun.)

  17. Matt_M said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    @Bob Ladd and David Morris: I can confirm (from my experience of teaching in Thailand) that Thais have enormous difficulty in perceiving the distinction between voiced and unvoiced syllable-final stops (let alone producing it).

  18. Matt_M said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    @xyzzyva: my own impression (as a native speaker of Australian English) is that while Australians normally pronounce intervocalic /t/ and /d/ as alveolar flaps, a facultative/formal unflapped pronunciation seems to be more common in Australian English than in American English.

    In most cases, I'd say the t/d distinction is neutralised intervocally. On the other hand, the /t/ or /d/ in "hurtle" or "hurdle" is not exactly intervocalic, since it precedes a syllabic /l/ rather than a vowel. My own (quite likely unreliable) impression is that "hurtle" and "hurdle" do sound different, even in fairly rapid speech, but I'm not sure whether it's a result of some degree of devoicing in "hurtle" or a slightly shorter vowel in "hurtle" than in "hurdle".

  19. Rod Johnson said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    The intricacies of flapping vs. nasal/lateral release vs. unreleased/glottal in words like kitten and hurtle are extremely difficult to sort out, in my experience. There's a lot of variability, intuitions are highly unreliable, and instrumental data are hard to interpret because everything's so fleeting and things like the relative timing of glottal vs. apical closure are so hard to measure.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    By the way, the next time I can't sleep, instead of the usual expedient, maybe I'll count hurdling bellwethers. It can't hurt(le).

  21. Bloix said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    1) My Webster's II New College Dictionary says that hurtle is the frequentative of hurt, with the original meaning of hurt (OFr hurter) being to bang into. Hurdle appears to have originated as a noun, ME hurdel, meaning a portable fence panel (same dictionary).

    2) The Washington Post ran a frontpage picture caption the other day: Capitals [the hockey team] Hurdle Toward Game 7. Maybe it was a pun -the picture showed team caption Alex Ovechkin falling or jumping over an opponent's horizontally held stick.

  22. Paul Trembath said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 3:55 am

    @Rod Johnson "most Britons intrude a 'g' to make it 'badmington'" – not IME.

  23. Dick Margulis said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    Chris C.: The choice to use hurtle transitively instead of hurl (Paul hurtled the bouquet toward his daughter) was intentional.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    Paul: you're quoting @richardelguru, not me.

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