The American Heritage Dictionary lists bollard as 'Chiefly British', and indeed this is a word that I hadn't encountered before I lived here, though I'd certainly encountered the things before.

A bollard (in its most frequent sense in BrE) is a post that is used to get in the way of traffic--for instance to keep cars from driving or parking on the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk (like the ones on the left) or to direct cars toward(s) the correct lane (see right). There's a scene I like in the film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz that involves some paranoid bollards. But then again, I like every scene in that film. It's not a film that would be to everyone's taste (I saw it in a Paris cinema's season of 'British eccentrics'), but it's one of those films in which the city (London) is at least as much of a character as those that are played by actors.

Prior to my residence in Britain, I would have called bollards posts. Oh, what an impoverished vocabulary I had back then! But then one does come across more bollards in the UK than in the US. Sometimes they're there for no obvious reason. For example, on a two-way road near my house, there is a bollard that makes traffic going down hill give way (AmE yield) to traffic that's coming up the hill. Since the road is wide enough at this point to let the traffic go both ways, the bollard is just there to slow down the cars that are going down the hill. I can't see why they didn't choose another way to slow the traffic that wouldn't involve the creation of traffic (BrE & regional AmE) queues (general AmE lines). For instance, one could use a (BrE [originally] & regional AmE) sleeping policeman (other AmE speed bump; BrE & AmE speed hump; BrE road hump). Better Half has just called this bollardy arrangement a chicane, another word that only entered my (passive) lexicon after I moved here. The term comes from motor racing, where it usually refers to a little kink in the racetrack, but it's extended here to include the type of traffic slowing measure described above, and like the one (that's barely visible) in this picture from Lancashire.

Sometimes the word bollard is used (in BrE) to refer to the thing on the left, though such things are usually termed traffic cones in BrE and pylons in (at least my dialect of) AmE. Pylon, of course, can also refer to the electrical type of thing to the right--in either dialect. A strange piece of lexicographical trivia is that American Heritage doesn't record the 'traffic cone' sense of pylon, while the OED does (and marks it 'U.S.').


In other news, I was away playing Scrabble again this weekend (hence the lack of blogging), and, as often happens in such situations, I was twice mistaken for Canadian. That brings the Canadian count to five instances in five months. (I also got one instance of "I usually don't like American accents but...".)

Perhaps it's a good thing that I didn't have a chance to blog, as I believe the blog is starting to work against me. I mocked mushy peas, and, lo and behold, five days later my application for UK citizenship was turned down. They say it's because some of my paperwork didn't arrive on time, but I think we can read between the peas...


  1. What a wonderful word, "bollard"! I wondered throughout my year abroad in England what to call those things besides "posts getting in the way of things."

    It's interesting that "pylon" can be used for traffic cones and transmission towers in your AmE dialect. I've only ever heard those things referred to as, well, traffic cones and transmission towers. I would use "pylon" for posts, usually concrete, which hold up a jetty/dock/pier, but I think that's about it.

    "Bollard." Great word. Thank you. :)

  2. Your mention of traffic cones brings to mind a famous proposal made in Britain in prehistoric times (ie before the thousand-year reign of the great Yoni Blair) by John Major, a prime minister (BrE), who pledged to set up a Cones Hotline which motorists would be able to call to report the obstruction of roads by unnecessary traffic cones.

    Such calls would result in immediate action in the form of the establishment of a Royal Commission to look in to the possibility of holding a Public Enquiry which would consider the feasibility of creating an All-party Parliamentary Committee to assess the cost-effectiveness of allocating resources towards the development of a Working Party which would propose a timetable for an initiative working towards the removal of the offending cones.

    Potential candidates in the next US Presidential elections should consider support for a Pylons Hotline, a sure vote-winner.

    John Major was also famous for eating peas with a knife - and they weren't even mushy ones. And for tucking his (BrE) vest into his (BrE) underpants.

  3. Re the Cones Hotline again: of course, many people considered this to be just bollards.

  4. Thanks, Straw--Better Half is complaining that he told me the John Major story last night, but I only laughed at it when you told it. Uh-oh...

    Glad you liked the word, Rebecca. So do I!

  5. Martians land in rural England and the startled populace call the emergency-services. After about half an hour a small police-car arrives and the occupants realise that alien life has come to earth. Ever-helpful, the constable who is driving turns to his superior and asks: "Shall I get out the cones, sarge."

    When I worked in the electricity-industry, market-research discovered that some people thought pylons were the wires that those masts carried. One customer kindly wrote in to suggest that, in order to relieve the countryside of such eyesores, the pylons should be buried out of sight.

    BTW, more electricity is lost in the process of delivering it to your house than you actually receive through the meter.

    The UK electricity company for which I worked was taken over by an Australian power-firm. They brought with them their computer-systems which included codes for reporting reasons for power-cuts (aka outages). A colleague asked what POTL stood for and was told it was possum on the line, an infrequent occurrence in urban England.

    In Australia, though, possums like to hang from power-lines instead of trees and, for as long as they suspend themselves from just one such wire, they're fine. The problem arises when they try to swing over from one line to another. If contact is established, you get a bang, a burning smell and what's known as a POTL-outage.

  6. Bollard is originally (AFAIK) a term of nautical jargon. Aboard a ship or on a dock, a bollard is the post about which one wraps a mooring line to secure the ship to the dock.

    If you have ever seen these posts, the decision to use the same term for the sort in streets is obvious.

  7. There is an Irish road sign that says "Yeild" (Irish signage is a little special - for a long time distances were shown in km but speed limits were in mph - we fixed that last year!) You don't often hear the word "yeild" otherwise.

    We have "speed bumps", "traffic cones" and "electricity pylons". The construsts that mobile phones talk to are "mobile phone masts" rather than pylons.

    Did you mean to say "traffic jam" when you compared Br "traffic" to Am "queue"?

  8. Thanks for all the electrical trivia, Paul.

    Doug, you're right about the history of the term. The etymology beyond that is obscure.

    David, what I was trying to say is that the AmE for (BrE) queue is line, but one doesn't actually say a traffic line, so that was problematic. But to me a traffic queue is not the same as a traffic jam, so I was having a hard time thinking of what I'd say for 'a line of cars waiting for their turn to go'. We probably don't need a word for this so much in AmE because we don't have so many chicanes and (BrE) roundabouts/(AmE, or at least New England AmE) traffic circles.

  9. The bollard pictured on the upper right reminds me of the brilliant Monty Python sketch about the Attack of the Killer Keep-Left Signs.

  10. Since you are so gracious, Ms Guist, about my corporate trivia, may I try your patience further by saying that I once worked for IBM's telephony division and we were being briefed for this project at a presentation involving lots of OHP foils (no poncey PowerPoint in them days) which were richly festooned with telecoms-jargon and acronyms. Towards the end of the meeting, the presenter said: "And at this point I'm afraid I must introduce you to yet another TLA." So far everyone had been nodding a great deal and pretending that they were understanding all the technical talk but, this time, somebody's nerve broke and they asked what the blazes a TLA was. TLA, it turned out, stood for "three-letter abbreviation".

  11. Hi! Sorry for being a bit silent of late, but I'm trying to catch up!

    I throughly enjoyed all of the "traffic" words. Reminds me of having to learn all of the alterative British terms when I was going for my UK DrivING LicenCe!

    Just one more comment -- when I first moved to England almost 4 years ago, I kept getting "bollards" and "bollocks" confused! (Oops!) So that has led to our personal use of the term "Bollards"! as an exclamation!

    Hope you also did YOUR best to enjoy "Thanksgiving" here. I found writing on Lord Celery about my homesickness yesterday helped me cope -- as did the Chicken Quesadillas that John made for me!!



  12. Bollard is used in the US construction, archtecture and landscape industries. But that's still not enough to make it 'public' knowledge. Similarly, you might look at gabion, tabaret, and charrette as architectural/engineering terms that aren't au fait in wider discourse.

  13. I thought you might like to know - belatedly, I've only just discovered your blog - that my mother used to use "bollard" in place of the usual profanities but in front of children. As in "BOLLARD I just stubbed my toe". Presumably for the same reason as Janet, but not through an error originally.

  14. That's a bit strange, I've totally different experiences with the AmE words here. Bollard was a common word at University (norther California), as the campus was littered with them, and I've never heard the pointy orange things be described as anything but traffic cones (New York). If you said pylon, I wouldn't have the faintest idea that you meant the traffic cone.

  15. There are only 17,576 TLAs, so when you run out you have to go to ETLAs, or Extended Three-Letter Acronyms.

  16. No no, four-letter acronyms are XTLAs - eXtended Three-Letter Acronyms!

  17. The original bollards, I believe (CBATCI) were captured bronze cannon turned on their muzzles, which is why older ones are narrower at the bottom than at the top ...

  18. Is there a British term for what people in the Washington, D.C. area call a "Jersey barrier"? When I mentioned that term (which was new to me) to my boyfriend, who lived in London for several years, he assumed it was a reference to Jersey in the Channel Islands, while I assumed it referred to New Jersey, but I hate the blasted things either way.

  19. I've never seen a Jersey barrier in the UK, so I'm not sure that there is a word for it. Recently, I was in a situation in which there would have definitely been Jersey barriers in the US (closure of some lanes in a fairly complicated interchange) and there had to be a hundred traffic cones/pylons, but nothing that would have seriously kept the traffic away...

  20. I love the word "bollard" but it's one of those words that, for me, doesn't sound right in an AmE accent--the vowel in the 2nd syllable gets turned into a schwa-ish thing.

    Quasi-relatedly, my Qu├ębecois husband uses "chicane" to mean a disagreement. It's also a verb, apparently, as he sometimes says "Je veux pas chicaner avec toi." I've never heard this usage in French-from-France but I don't know any French people well enough to chicaner with them!

  21. For me, these are pylons:

    Which doesn't quite fit any of the dictionary definitions, but isn't too far off.

    And I do mean those specific structures, not just things like that. I actually had to think about where I know the word from, and finally remembered, oh yeah, those things above Bartle Hall.

    Basically, things that might be called pylons don't make the news much, but those did.

  22. Anonymous, can you tell us which dialect you speak?

  23. For me, pylon isn't a word I've experienced, except for news coverage of the art on top of these pylons:

    Reading the post, I was thinking, "why is the word pylon so familiar, yet I've no meaning attached it it?"... took me a bit to realize, that's because I only have one very specific referent for it, and even there, the discussion was not about the pylons, but the artwork on top.

  24. See link. It gives location.

  25. Well, if one reads the fine print below the picture, one can find out it's in Missouri. But it might've been nice to tell us!

  26. (And just because the picture is in Missouri doesn't mean you speak AmE.)

  27. Pylon, for me (AmE, NorCal) is a concrete support structure, things that support freeway overpasses or parking garages/car parks

  28. Traffic cones are called traffic cones in Australia, but are more commonly informally referred to as "witches hats".

  29. Is there a British term for what people in the Washington, D.C. area call a "Jersey barrier"?

    Those of us not in the trade don't use the term, but an outfit called Safesite advertises (among other things) to the trade:

    Concrete barrier blocks or jersey barriers are a simple and effective way to secure your empty premises against unwelcome visits from trespassers, vandals, fly tippers and travellers. Concrete security barriers may be placed across the access to a property, or around the perimeter to block vehicular access. We provide concrete sleepers in either 1.5m, 2.5m or 3m lengths, which can be bolted together with our state of the art interlocking system to create a virtually impenetrable concrete barrier.

  30. This link tells you all you might wish to know about the meanings of pylon — except for how it came to mean 'traffic cone'.

    Incidentally, Hamlet's bourn as in

    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will

    would have looked rather like a bollard.

    (In modern French, bornes still mark boundaries, but may have a lot more functions beside, many of them similar to our bollards.)

  31. Came here from the NYT Spelling Bee post, thus why I'm posting 17 years later.

    I wanted to ask if chicane and chicanery are related - I (AmE) have never heard the former before, but I know the latter, and it certainly seems like chicanery should be the process of making chicanes.

    Checking Wiktionary, it looks like this is right - they're French for trick / trickery, roughly, which makes sense.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)