The other day in the office, someone referred to another person as being a third wheel. I immediately wondered if meant to say ‘fifth wheel.’
Since I belong to the perennially single class, I often feel like a fifth wheel. Or is it a third wheel?
I thought I knew the answer until I heard a co-worker refer to someone else with a variant of the phrase.
The phrase — no matter how many wheels your version includes — is an idiom. An idiom is a phrase that has a unique meaning in context but that may not make sense outside of that specific context.
Idioms can cause confusion for people who aren’t familiar with the specific phrases because their meaning isn’t always obvious outside of the conversation in which they appear.
What does the phrase actually mean?
For now, we’ll hold off on deciding how many wheels ought to be counted.
Instead, let’s look at the meaning of the phrase itself.
Urban Dictionary defines it as a member of a group of friends who’s only actually a part of things when one is missing.
That seems a bit vague to me.
Merriam-Webster provides a better, if harsher, definition: “One who is superfluous, unnecessary, or burdensome.”
Harsh indeed. Ouch.
My definition is sort of the “odd man out.” The “wheel” tags along without being attached to anyone specific. This especially comes into play when there are only couples around. Since the wheel does not accompany anyone, the group can’t be evenly balanced. The wheel must latch on to a member of a couple and, essentially, get in the way.
So how many wheels should there actually be?
If you got sneaky and actually clicked either of the links, you know I pulled definitions of fifth wheel.
Some do use third wheel, however, with the same meaning. If you think about it, either could work…to an extent.
An odd number of wheels, it seems, would be unnecessary with most types of vehicles.
Three wheels turn a bicycle into a tricycle. On the other hand, a tricycle might be considered more stable and less likely to tip over than a bicycle.
So there might just be something positive, from that point of view, about a third wheel.
A fifth wheel, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as necessary. Four wheels, in most vehicles, do the job quite well. A fifth, however, can be very important if one of the four goes flat. In that scenario, you wouldn’t want to be without that fifth one.
Practically, we’re usually talking about someone who joins a couple, so that you have an unnecessary person the couple could get along just fine without. So third wheel, in that respect, does make sense.
I can’t say I’d ever use that particular phrase.
So go with five, not three. And remember: sometimes either can also be the loneliest number.