Home Science Wait —: Wait — What Is a Hole?

Wait —: Wait — What Is a Hole?

“Wait —” is a weekly newsletter in which Caity Weaver investigates an unanswered question in the news and pop culture.

Allow me to ruin your life real quick.

A few days into the new year, someone asked me, as a kind of puzzle: “What is a hole?” Right now, your brain is protecting you; human brains are poor multitaskers and since yours is occupied with reading, you haven’t yet had time to sit back and consider the question that has blown across the fecund wasteland of my thoughts nearly every day of 2019. The problem is that your brain cannot protect you forever. If you want to get off this ride, you need to do it now. At the end of this sentence, I will provide a hyperlink to take you to an unrelated page so that you can redirect your attention before any of what you’ve read thus far sinks in — except, as you can see, I have inserted the hyperlink well before the end of the sentence and you need to go back and click it immediately if you are planning to, since as soon as your brain receives the visual cue that this paragraph has ended it will be too late, because then you’re going to have time to start thinking.

What is a hole?

A hole is a portion of something where something is not. Beyond that, holes are slippery. (As a concept — only some in reality.) Is a hole necessarily empty on both sides, like the gaps in a slice of Swiss cheese? Or need it only be empty on one side, like a pit dug into the earth? Is a hole with a bottom less of a hole than one without one? Can a slit be a hole, or must a hole be vaguely round? Does a straw have two holes, as one Reddit user pondered, or just one — a single thicc hole, if you will?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest written attestation of the word “hole” (kind of) in English (technically) comes from the eighth century (though it’s actually probably the ninth) in a sort of Latin dictionary and translation guide. Here, the Old English “hol” is suggested as an equivalent of the somewhat obscure Latin term “spiramentum,” which later writers translated more specifically as “air hole” or “breathing space.”

The O.E.D. files this usage under the second sense of “hole,” defined as “a perforation” and “an aperture passing through anything.” The first sense of “hole” (“a hollow place, cavity, excavation”) seems to imply something with a bottom; its earliest attestation comes from a land grant charter written in 946.

The writer Josephine Livingstone (who wrote a moving ode to Old English in The New York Times earlier this year) graciously translated an excerpt from that document for me, transforming Old English “holes” into modern English hollows, as King Edmund I granted to one of his ministers a portion of land that ran “… to the old hollow; from the hollow to the old hill …” shortly before he was stabbed to death at church. (Precisely what made one hollow or hill older than another is unclear.)

English distinguishes between holes based on size (canyon, perforation), depth (abyss, depression), how they were made (piercing), what size animal lives in them (burrow), whether they are unintentional (leak), or intentional (vent), and enough other variants to completely fill a dell (“a deep natural hollow or vale of no great extent, the sides usually clothed with trees or foliage”; the topographical setting of the nursery rhyme in which the cheese stands alone.)

And yet, there are other characteristics of holes that escape our special attention. We have no common word for a hole that is bigger than a pinprick but smaller than a pothole. German identifies a metaphorical hole in the month of January when the bustle, spirits and commerce of the holiday season suddenly abate (“Januarloch”). In some dialects of Spanish, a “butrón” is a hole made in a building to carry out a break-in.

I asked my friend Aminatou Sow, who grew up in Nigeria and Belgium (and whose frenetic Instagram storying I urge you to experience) (also her podcast), about Fulani terms for holes. “Ngayka,” she said, is a hole in the ground. (“To me it evokes a BIG HOLE.”) “Wudde,” to her, is a smaller hole, not in the ground. A PDF of an old Peace Corps English-French-Fulani dictionary also listed “budde” under the “hole” entry. Via text, Aminatou’s father identified this as a plural form.

“He says no one says that, though,” she said. “‘Why would you be talking about multiple holes?’

Great question.

Speaking of holes…
A Business With No End

Nov. 27, 2018

How Do You Take a Picture of a Black Hole? With a Telescope as Big as the Earth

Oct. 4, 2018

Egg-in-a-Hole for Camping or the Comfort of Home

June 30, 2015