Reinvent the Wheel – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are figurative forms of speech that allow authors to create an allusion to a known literal meaning. They provide detail and interest and can be a fun way to describe something through the relationship or comparison they create.

However, they can also be confusing to people unfamiliar with their use. The idiom reinvent the wheel has nothing to do with a wheel and is, in fact, a fairly recent creation in the English language.

Let’s take a look at its inception, what it means, and how it should be used.

What Is the Meaning of Reinventing the Wheel?

Reinvent the Wheel Idiom Meaning Origin

To reinvent the wheel means to waste one’s time working on creating something that has already been created by someone else or trying to solve a problem that has already been solved.

The idea is that the wheel referred to in this idiom is an existing invention, so expending resources on a solved problem is a waste of effort. Most often, the idiom is used as an admonishment against wasting time and effort.

Reinvent the Wheel Examples in a Sentence

  • All this current school administration does year after year is reinvent the wheel and make us all crazy, as if finals don’t happen at the end of every school year.
  • Why recreate an entirely new schedule and reinvent the wheel when the current schedule works perfectly fine?
  • There was no sense in reinventing the wheel when perfectly acceptable lessons already existed; all she needed to do was personalize them to her own classroom.
  • As regards designing a user interface, it is often best to follow established standards and conventions—don’t reinvent the wheel.

Reinvent the Wheel Origins

Reinvent the Wheel Ngram
Reinvent the wheel usage trend.

The term reinvent the wheel dates back to the 1950s, often used as a business and advertising metaphor.

One of the earliest published occurrences of the phrase dates to 1956 and is found in Documentation in Action from an article concerning how research workers, executives and others use information:

“The intensive literature search at the beginning of a research project is intended to define the precise boundaries between the known and the unknown and to forestall unnecessary duplication or, as one scientist has expressed it, to avoid re-inventing the wheel.”

The expression quickly became more commonplace outside of business, as seen in this Des Moines Register newspaper column dated March 1960:

“I’m resigned to this: Each generation must re-invent the wheel for itself, must discover afresh what makes things roll.”

Let’s Review

The phrase reinvent the wheel is a fairly recent idiom as far as idioms go. It refers to the idea that the wheel has already been invented, so why do something new when you already have a solution? It infers that if you reinvent the wheel, you are wasting time creating something that already has a solution.

Originally used in business and advertising jargon, the idiom quickly made its way into everyday English and is now a common saying to remind somebody not to waste time.

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: