A fifth wheel – Hebrew & English

The other day, a friend was telling me that surprisingly, she had the house to herself. Her oldest son was in the army and the two younger ones were on a 2-day trip. On the other hand, her husband was on his way home from a 10-day business trip overseas. I was pleased that they would have some quiet quality time, to catch up on each other’s news, but I did want to suggest that I would come and spend the evening with them, as a fifth wheel. 😉

As usual, this got me thinking and I realized that I may have finally stumbled across an idiom that is the same in Hebrew and in English. I started looking into it, and found that the phrase in Hebrew, “galgal hamishi,” literally means “fifth wheel”! I was very excited and rushed to my computer to write this post!

A fifth wheel means someone who is unnecessary or even burdensome in a given situation; it first appears in writing from the late 19th century, in reference to a fifth and redundant wheel on a horse and cart that already has four sturdy wheels.

I think that some of us have a tendency to say “third wheel,” which makes sense because we use the term in reference to a third person. But the original/correct term in both Hebrew and English is “fifth wheel.”

This post reminded me of a lovely Hebrew children’s book called “Wheels” by Mirik Snir, where the young boy asks his father for a small car. Each time, the child finds another wheel, and together they build a different vehicle. They build a wheelbarrow with the first wheel, a scooter with the second, and a tricycle with the third. Finally, when the little boy finds a fourth wheel, they build a car. As the story ends there, it seems that indeed there is no need for a fifth wheel 😊


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