Fifth wheel vs third wheel

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Fifth wheel and third wheel are two idioms that many find confusing. An idiom is a figure of speech that is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. We will examine the definitions of fifth wheel and third wheel, where these terms came from and some examples of their use in sentences.

A fifth wheel is someone who is unnecessary to the group, someone who is tagging along with a group of people and is not altogether welcome. A fifth wheel is usually considered a burden, often because the group is comprised of couples, with the exception of the person who is the fifth wheel. The term fifth wheel may be traced to the seventeenth century, and is based on the idea that a carriage or wagon is constructed with four wheels, a fifth wheel is superfluous and adds nothing to the integrity of the wagon.

A third wheel is someone who is unnecessary to a group and is tagging along. In this case, the group usually consists of a couple and the third, superfluous person. The term third wheel is a misrepresentation of the term fifth wheel, as fifth wheel does not refer to any particular number of people in a group. One may make the argument that it is based on the idea that a bicycle has two wheels and a third wheel may be superfluous.


Reyes turned his fifth-wheel discomfort into quite a game: a triple, double, single, stolen base, and three RBIs as a 23-year-old man who last year was apprenticing at Single A made people realize, for at least one afternoon, why the Tigers gambled on stealing him six months ago from the Diamondbacks. (The Detroit News)

HOMES UNDER THE HAMMER presenter Lucy Alexander has hinted she thinks host Dion Dublin was a “third wheel” during her time on the property programme. (The Sunday Express)

Want to have more idioms in your arsenal? Check out some others we covered: