In The Big Empty, I have several references to bar ditches — the trenches that run beside many rural Texas roads. The ditches are designed, at least in part, for flood control. They may also also help to keep livestock from wandering onto the highway.
My editor flagged the term repeatedly, saying she’d never heard it and most readers probably hadn’t either. I attributed to this to her living in Pennsylvania and being unfamiliar with the terminology of rural Texas. After all, she hadn’t heard of a gimme cap, either.
As the manuscript neared completion, one of the reader I enlisted had grown up in West Texas and was familiar with the term. However, she pointed out that a journalism instructor at Texas A&M once admonished her for using it. He told her not only should she avoid it, but she shouldn’t use the more complete term, “borrow ditch,” either.
I had always heard that the term comes from the road-building technique in rural areas. Crews “borrow” dirt from the sides to crown the roadway before paving. The practice left trenches on either side of the pavement. The term was latter shortened from “borrow” to “bar.”
Well, it turns out, “bar ditches” are the subject of much discussion and controversy, and my editor isn’t the only one who doesn’t like it. Even people who live with bar ditches everyday don’t necessary embrace the term. There’s also a lot of debate about its origins. Some apparently believe it dates to road building in England.
I’d be curious what others have heard about the term and its history. Have you heard it before? What did you think it means?
Regardless, for The Big Empty, I insisted that “bar ditch” was a pretty common term in Texas, and I decided to keep it in.
And yes, in some places, the bar ditches are wide enough that you can change a tire if your truck gets knocked off the road by a rented moving van.