Next, let’s get something straight: You “hurtle” over a “hurdle.” A surprising number of sports reports can’t make up their minds: A high school athlete wins the “300-meter hurtles,” but later stats list the boys and girls “100-mtr hurdles.” An award-winning dog displays her ability on an obstacle course “including hurtles, weave poles, tunnels and A-frames,” but her trainer “runs alongside her to guide her to the next hurdle.” You get the picture.
Though only one letter separates them, they don’t have a lot else in common. “Hurdle” is both a noun and a verb. The first “hurdle” was a temporary or portable fence to enclose sheep or cattle, and came into English about 725, the OED says. That fence, made of horizontal bars, became the racing “hurdle” around 1833. But in between, a “hurdle” was also “a kind of frame or sledge on which traitors used to be drawn through the streets to execution.” Its use as part of the punishment for high treason wasn’t abolished until 1870, the OED says, so there was a potential for a few years of mistaking what kind of “hurdle” one was getting into or over. The verb “hurdle” first appeared around 1600 and was associated with the fencing or the sledge; the form meaning to jump over the “hurdles” waited until the end of the 19th century.
“Hurtle” also has both noun and verb forms. The verb “hurtle” means to move quickly, sometimes with force. It arrived around 1250 with a meaning now considered obsolete: “To strike, dash, or knock (something against something else, or two things together).”
The first “hurtle” noun appeared about the same time as the verb “hurdle,” but meant a swelling on the skin or a variation of “whortle,” itself short for “whortleberry,” usages now considered obsolete, the OED says. Poetic and rhetorical uses of “hurtle” as a noun meant “The action or an act of hurtling; dashing together, collision, conflict; clashing sound.”
We rarely see “hurtle” as a noun, unless it’s misused for “hurdle.” And that happens enough that “hurdle/hurtle” are entered in the eggcorn database.
Stopping to think about this, of course it makes sense. One hurtles through space, not hurdles – thought there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. Not employed as a sports writer I don’t believe I have bumped into this issue. Yet I cannot help but be a little bit fascinated.