My NOOB ears perked up when I recently read in my local newspaper, The Swarthmorean, this line from an editorial supporting a local traffic project: “The proposed single-lane traffic-circle, or roundabout, with proper signs, would direct traffic to multiple destinations at slower rates of speed.”
What got my attention wasn’t a proper, which I’ve already covered, but roundabout, which struck me as a NOOB variant of the tried-and-true U.S. traffic circle or rotary. Sure enough, quite a few U.S. uses turned up, for example, this article posted today in the East Cobb (Georgia) Patch.com: “Dozens of East Cobb residents brought questions and concerns to Monday night’s information session about the roundabout being installed in their neighborhood this summer.”
Turning to the OED, the dictionary indeed says that roundabout, in a traffic sense, is “orig. and chiefly Brit.” The definition:
A junction of several roads consisting of a central (usually circular) island around which traffic moves in one direction. Vehicular roundabouts developed from large-scale circuses or rond-points in France and America … Typically smaller in size, British roundabouts are sometimes distinguished from similar junctions by the rule in which oncoming traffic must give way to traffic moving around the central island. Traffic circle and rotary are the more common terms in America …
The first citation comes from The Times in 1926: “A protest should be made‥against the uncouth, Latinese word ‘gyratory’ to express the new traffic arrangements‥. Why not use the simple English word ‘round-about’?” The OED also quotes a 1966 U.S. source observing, “In my lifetime I have seen the traffic circle of the Middle Atlantic States become the rotary of New England.”
But the difficulty in labeling roundabout a NOOB lies in the difference among the three terms for circles into which traffic enters and from which it emerges. Wikipedia observes: “In the U.S., traffic engineers use the term roundabout for intersections in which entering traffic must yield to traffic already in the circle, reserving the term traffic circle for those in which entering traffic is controlled by stop signs, traffic signals, or is not formally controlled.” Or, in New England, rotary.
Complicating matters further, roundabouts are apparently on the way to supplanting rotaries and traffic circles in the U.S. A 2009 BBC piece focused on the town of Carmel, Indiana, which has built more than 80 roundabouts under the leadership of its mayor, a fervent proponent of the concept, and bids fair to become the Milton Keynes of the Midwest–that English city apparently being celebrated for its roundabouts.
So maybe my town isn’t building a rotary or a traffic circle but a roundabout and only a roundabout. And maybe roundabout isn’t a NOOB but rather a NOOBT–that is, a Not One-Off British Thing. I will let you know.