Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Episode 187: At a Crossroads


This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase, "At a Crossroads", which has a strong association with blues legend Robert Johnson. Bonus: Search engine optimization in the 1700s and cool pet names. Also, how do you pronounce gnocchi?

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Episode 187: At a Crossroads Show Notes


Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast 

Episode 187: At the Crossroads

Record Date: March 25, 2023

Air Date: March 29, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever hit a moment in your life when you must make a choice and whatever decision you make will determine the rest of your life? You get to choose but whichever direction you go, the other path will forever be cut off from you. Some call it a tipping point or the moment of truth. Regardless of the moment, the crux of the situation is that you stand at the crossroads. 


To be at a crossroads means that one faces a decision that will have a major impact and cannot be changed once made. 

Collins Dictionary states, 


If you say that something is at a crossroads, you mean that it has reached a very important stage in its development where it could go one way or another.

End quote 

Before we look at the history, a quick note of thanks and some intrigue to start us off. Our Patron, Pat Rowe, recently talked with Dan and I about a guitarist who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his talent. It got me thinking about the association of faustian pacts and the location of a crossroads. Why at a crossroads?

Well, I went down a bunny trail and ended up needing to find out about this phrase and where it actually originated. Not surprisingly, the term crossroads didn’t start with the idea of a decision to be made. 

Oxford English Dictionary tells us that established in the early 1700s, cross roads - in the form of two separate words, cross plus road or roads - was a term used to describe:


A road crossing another, or running across between two main roads; a by-road.

End quote 

We also find the definition, 


The place where two roads cross each other; the place of intersection of two roads. Also called the cross roads - or - a four-cross-road.

End quote 

The cross roads were quickly recognized as a place of interest. This is where all the activity happens. People set up shops at the cross roads, it’s where they met up with others because it was easily identifiable and relatively equidistant from their various locations. As a result of natural traffic and the ease of a cross road being a meeting place, that’s generally where all the action took place.

Here is an example from the work Travels Through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 In which Several Monuments of Roman and Moorish Architecture are Illustrated by Accurate Drawings Taken on the Spot. This was written by Henry Swinburne and published in 1779


All the Mancha before us seems to be a bare corn-country, ugly and tedious beyond expression. For my part, unless it be to look out at a venta, or peep about for an adventure at the meeting of the cross-roads, I intend sleeping all the way to Madrid. 

End quote 

People also recognized that the activity at the cross roads was sometimes risky or posed a threat. Let’s take this one last aside before moving on.

Oxford English Dictionary lists another phrase, along with the use of the word dirty as an adjective with this definition, 


Dirty - That stains the honour of the persons engaged; dishonourably sordid, base, mean, or corrupt; despicable. Colloquial phrase dirty work at the crossroads.

End quote 

They also provide an example of the phrase. P. G. Wodehouse (Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse) in the 1914 work Man Upstairs writes,   


A conviction began to steal over him that in some way he was being played with, that some game was afoot which he did not understand, that—in a word—there was dirty work at the cross-roads.

End quote 

Before we move on, here is one more item that I want to cover. The term cross-path. The example of this term that I’ve selected comes from the work 

The Malefactor's Register; Or, the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (New Newgate and Tyburn Calendar). Containing the Authentic Lives, Trials, Accounts of Executions and Dying Speeches of the Most Notorious Violators of the Laws of Their Country; who Have Suffered Death and Other Exemplary Punishments ... from the Year 1700 to Lady-day 1779 (to the Midsummer Sessions of Next Year)

This was published by in 1779. The excerpt comes from a section titled,