Q&A: Tire vs tyre

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re kicking the tires…

Q: Hi AWC, I might tire of this quickly, but can you confirm that the big rubbery things on my car are “tyres”?

A: Well, we haven’t seen your car. They could be rubber chickens.

Q: Okay, let me rephrase it. Are the things that you swing from trees in spelt “tyres”?

A: How did the car end up in the tree?

Q: Never mind the car. Just confirm the spelling!

A: Okay, we also got tired of that game. And if you’re asking us about the round black things which are, quite literally, where the rubber meets the road, then yes, here in Australia, we spell them “tyres”.

Q: Yet you “tire” if you’re sleepy?

A: That’s right.

Q: Then why do I see the rubbery things also spelt “tire”?

A: Surely you know where this is going.

Q: I’m guessing it’s a return flight to America.

A: Ding ding. Correct!

Q: Ugh. Why can’t English make up its mind.

A: Well, if it’s any consolation, “tyre” was the original spelling – arriving in the late 15th century and meaning the “iron plates forming a rim of a carriage wheel.” The word is likely linked as a shortened form of “attire” – because it “dressed the wheel”.

Q: Well that’s odd, why wouldn’t it just have been spelt “tire” then?

A: At the time, there was already a more direct noun “tire” – meaning “dress or covering”. Also, the yawny verb “tire” had turned up about a hundred years earlier. So, to avoid confusion, “tyre” was chosen.

Q: So it was the Americans who made the split?

A: Actually no. By the time America was springing into life around the 17th and 18th centuries, that original “tire” noun (“dress or covering”) had faded away and the spelling had switched worldwide to “tire” for the wheel rims.

Q: So wait, everyone was using “tire”?

A: For a while, yes. And it was actually the British who decided to change their spelling BACK to “tyre” in the 1800s. The Americans, who were all about simplifying things at the time, weren’t too keen on the idea, so kept with “tire” for all meanings.

Q: And it’s still that way today?

A: Yes, largely. If you’re in Canada or USA, “tire” is almost universally used. Meanwhile, Britain and the rest of the English speaking world (including Australia) haven’t tired of using “tyre” – however it’s not as clear cut, with “tire” making serious inroads in recent decades.

Q: Oh very funny.

A: What?

Q: Serious inroads – because tyres are IN roads. 

A: Oh, we’ll admit we didn’t even know we’d said that.

Q: Oh hilarious – WHEEL admit… Anything else to add before I tire of this topic?

A: Um, how about that the first rubber tyre didn’t arrive on the scene until 1877 – for bicycles first before later being added to cars.

Q: Nice. And is it true that Tyre City with 25% off big brands and free wheel alignments is not the same as the Lebanese city of Tyre – one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world?

A: Um, yeah, they’re quite different.

Q: I knew it. If you’ll excuse me, I just need to cancel some flights to Lebanon…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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