Tag Archives: treadmmill

A Word’s Disturbing Origin

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I had planned a different post for today, but it got highjacked by a thought that grabbed my mind and held it hostage. So bear with me, please.

Have you ever felt like exercising on a treadmill was torture? I know I have. But that was before I learned the disturbing origin of the word treadmill and came face to face with my own ignorance of a shameful piece of our history.

In the early 19th century, the treadmill, which only vaguely resembles its namesake, was invented in England with a dual purpose: to punish convicts and grind grain. Presumably if the punishment was sufficiently brutal, it would discourage the miscreant from further criminal activity.

The treadmill spread to the colonies and America where it caught on in prisons and workhouses. There’s an unforgettable scene in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. It’s set in the workhouse on Magazine Street in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves sent by their masters worked the treadmill grinding corn. To punish the slave girl, Hettie, her owner sends her there. Hettie describes the treadmill as “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were climbing it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.” Read the book.

Prior to its appearance in gyms and homes, the treadmmill was a device used by doctors to perform cardio stress tests. Who named it? Could the person who coined that word have been ignorant of its pedigree? Or knew it and didn’t care?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

–Elmore Leonard