Notes on Borrow(ing) Pit

  • Walter S. Avis
Part of the Cognition and Language: A Series in Psycholinguistics book series (CALS)


I first heard the term borrow pit during a visit to Spalding, Saskatchewan in the late 1940s, when the adjacent highway was being rebuilt to modern specifications, asphalt surfacing and all. A short time earlier, my brotherin-law had given the Department of Highways permission to remove from one of his fields near the road a large amount of fill to be used in building up the roadbed. He was left with an enormous pit, which later became valuable to him as a man-made watering-hole for his cattle and a pond for his geese; that is, it became a dugout, of which there are many on the prairies. I later learned that there were thousands of such pits strung along the railways and highways (and nowadays pipelines) of Canada.1


Civil Engineering Railway Embankment Railway Engineer Royal Military College Lifelong Friend 
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  1. 1.
    See The Canadian Geographical Journal, July 1967, 6.3: “The building of highways has both beneficial and adverse effects [on the duck population]. Some ditches and many borrow pits act as artificial potholes.”.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This familiar sight of bygone years is preserved by a photograph which I have seen in several places, the most recent being The Canadian Geographical Journal, January, 1961,15. These stationmen also have their monument: “[A] magnificent cairn [was] erected. to the memory of the pick-shovel-and-wheelbarrow brigades that built the railway. Its bronze tablets bear the words of Kipling’s’ sons of Martha’—that taut tribute to the sometimes forgotten legion of those who move mountains otherwise than by prayer.” (Stevens, 1962, Vol. 2, p. 449).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    As with barrow pit, NID3 labels bar pit and bar ditch “chiefly west.” The last-mentioned term is attested by Robert C. Cowser (1963) of Texas Christian University. The second term is said to be “a corrupted form” of the first, which is not identified with barrow pit; but then NID3 does not make the identification either, in spite of the identical definition in both places. Cowser’s brief note is of no help in illuminating the complex problem under discussion here.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The present generation of young people are moving toward [ε] in such words as marrow, barrow, Harry, marry. The transfer here proposed took place some two generations ago before the displacing of [æ] by [ε] in such words was as widespread as it is now in Canada.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This substitution of [æ] for [ɔ] is evident in this citation by Allen (1961, p. 103): “We said ‘I barrows first’ for first turn at bat.” When I was a kid in Toronto, we said “borrows” but Allen came from the east end of the city. Similar evidence would not be hard to find. The EDD, under barrow-pence, has a citation spelled borrow-pence (“coins found in a tumulus”), an instance, I assume, of the reverse process.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The French calque does not appear in Littré’s (1873) Dictionnaire Française, having been picked up and supported with a citation by later editors. It does appear in Hatzfeld and Darmestetter’s (1964) French dictionary; whether it appears in the 1871 version I have not yet been able to determine. The Spanish Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola gives a definition of préstamo equating with the meaning of borrow(ing) pit: “un camino.” The German Materialgrube is outside the calque pattern, judging from the gloss for borrow pit in Maret-Sander Encyclopoedic English-German Dictionary.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The translation dictionaries in which I found these Romance equivalents of borrow pit are as follows: Daviault (1945); The Follett/Zanichelli Italian Dictionary; and Williams (1956).Google Scholar


  1. Allen, R.T. When Toronto was for kids. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.Google Scholar
  2. Avis, W. S., and others. The senior dictionary. Toronto: Gage, 1967.(a).Google Scholar
  3. Avis, W. S. (Ed.). A dictionary of Canadianisms on historical principles. Toronto: Gage, 1967.(b).Google Scholar
  4. Cowser, R. C. From ‘borrow ditch’ to ‘bar ditch.’ American Speech 1963, 37, 157.Google Scholar
  5. Daviault, P. (Ed.). Military dictionary, English-French, French-English. Ottowa: King’s Printer, 1945.Google Scholar
  6. Diccionario de la lengua espaDZola. Madrid, 1956.Google Scholar
  7. Dictionnaire française. Paris, 1873.Google Scholar
  8. Fleming, S. The intercolonial. A historical sketch of the inception, location, construction and completion of the line of railway uniting the Inland and Atlantic Provinces of the Dominion, with maps and numerous illustrations. Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1876.Google Scholar
  9. Fleming, S. Report and documents in reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Ottowa: Department of Railways and Canals, 1880.Google Scholar
  10. Follett/Zanichelli Italian dictionary. Chicago: Follett, 1968.Google Scholar
  11. Hatzfeld, A., & Darmestetter, A. Dictionnaire général de la langue française. Paris, 1964. King, C. Saskatchewan harvest. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955.Google Scholar
  12. Littré. Dictionnaire française. Paris, 1873.Google Scholar
  13. Marchand, H. The categories and types of present-day English word-formation. A synchronic-diachronic approach (2nd ed.). Munich: C. H. Beck’sche, 1969.Google Scholar
  14. Maret-Sander encyclopoedic English-German dictionary. New York, 1931.Google Scholar
  15. Merritt, F. S. (Ed.). Standard handbook for civil engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.Google Scholar
  16. Pottinger, D. [Reports, correspondence, and miscellaneous papers relating to the] I[nter-] C[olonial] R[ailway], H[alifax] & W[indsor], and Pictou Extension, 1844–60 (Vol. 1); and I.C.R., 1861–67, N[ova] S[cotia] Railway [and the] W[indsor] & A[nnapolis] Railway, 1861–67 (Vol. 2). Halifax: after 1869.Google Scholar
  17. Stevens, C. R. Canadian national railways. Toronto: Clark-Irwin, 1962.Google Scholar
  18. Williams, E. B. (Ed.) The Holt Spanish and English dictionary. New York: Holt, 1956.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Walter S. Avis
    • 1
  1. 1.Late of Royal Military College of CanadaCanada

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