October 8th, 2003
Whence bulldozers? / alot and alright
by Barbara Wallraff
Jonathan Kaye, of San Francisco, writes, “When I told my five-year-old son that the big yellow thing digging up dirt was called a bulldozer, he laughed and laughed and said it was a ‘silly name.’ Come to think of it, he’s right. Do you have a convincing explanation of how the bulldozer got its name—convincing, I mean, to a five-year-old?”
Convincing, yes. Heartwarming, no. Interesting to a five-year-old boy? I’ll say! The “bull” part of this word is the powerful animal you’d think it is. The “dozer” part started out as the verb “dose” when the term originated in America, shortly after the Civil War. In 1881 “Saturday Review” magazine explained, “A ‘bull-dose’ means a large efficient dose of any sort of medicine or punishment”—a dose fit for a bull. Originally a man who “bull-dosed” or “bull-dozed” or “bulldozed” another man, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, coerced him by violence or intimidated him. (Think Paulie in “The Sopranos.”) From there it wasn’t much of a stretch to apply the noun to the intimidating machine that now goes by the name “bulldozer.”
Paul Abrahams, of Deerfield, Mass., writes, “A quite literate friend of mine uses the word ‘alot’ a lot in her writing. She thinks it’s correct and cites Microsoft Encarta; I think it’s wrong and cite Webster’s Collegiate, which doesn’t list it. I have similar questions about ‘alright’ and ‘awhile,’ as in ‘If it’s alright with you, I’ll be here for awhile.’ Are these forms acceptable or not?”
But “alot” isn’t in Microsoft Encarta—not in the original World English Dictionary, in the more recent College edition, or online. Not even Microsoft’s spell-checker approves of it. I use Microsoft Word to write this column, and reproducing your letter accurately took some doing, because Word’s “AutoCorrect” feature insists on changing “alot” to “a lot.”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.