Third Wheel – Its Meaning, Origin & Usage

While the phrase “third wheel” has quite a long and fascinating history, it has actually carried through to modern day with most of its original meaning remaining intact and is now one of the most used idioms that you will commonly hear in many awkward social situations. 

Here is the true definition of the “third wheel”’ idiom, including where it came from, its meaning for different situations, and different ways you can use it within a sentence. 

The Meaning Of Third Wheel

A “third wheel” refers to someone who is the odd one out in a group of three because two of the individuals within the group have a much stronger relationship. Being a “third wheel” is therefore referencing someone who is with two other people, but is not relevant or necessary to the group and doesn’t need to be there. 

This is most often the case when someone tags along with a couple, or if two friends in a group of three have started a romantic relationship, and the third person becomes far less relevant to the social group.

While it is most often associated with an erroneous third person who is associating with a couple, “third wheel” can also apply when two friends have gotten close, leaving a third person to feel unnecessary to the group or relationship.

The definition of “third wheel” is: 

– An unwanted and unnecessary third person in a group

Examples Of Third Wheel

While its meaning largely stays the same each time it is used, there are a few different ways people will actually use this phrase to describe situations.

Here are a few common examples of using “third wheel”:

Going On A Date

Most of the time when it is used, the term “third wheel” will be referencing a person hanging around a romantic couple while they are on a date. This could take many forms, such as a relative staying close to the couple to keep an eye on them, or a friend not realizing that they are unwanted in the situation.

This often creates a very uncomfortable and awkward situation for everyone involved as the third person is unwanted at that moment. This does not necessarily mean that the “third wheel” is disliked by the two individuals however, in most cases, they are actually seen as a close friend, it is simply referring to how they have not understood the social situation and presume they are necessary when they really aren’t. 

Taking A Photo

If you have ever jumped into a photo taken by a couple or two close friends, then you could be called a “third wheel”. Many people will use this term when looking back at photographs of three people which were intended only to have two individuals in the frame.

This will often be from a friend or relative photobombing and inserting themself into a photo being taken, or can even be a stranger who decided to include themselves. 

Other Ways To Say Third Wheel

“Third wheel” is actually quite a unique phrase and has become synonymous with what it references, however, there is another term that has a fairly similar meaning and that is “deadwood”. This essentially refers to a person who is no longer useful or burdensome, and while it often refers to a third person accompanying a pair of individuals, it can also be used to refer to a person within a bigger group, or multiple people at once in some cases. 

However, another similar version of the term that is less used is “fifth wheel”. Despite the name, this means the same thing as “third wheel” and is another way of referring to an unnecessary or extra member to a group of three, though it can also be used in bigger groups.

Being a “gooseberry” also means being an unwanted third addition to a group of two, however, it more often refers to a friend tagging along with a couple rather than referring to friends. 

Origins Of Third Wheel

While the term “third wheel” is believed to have started being used during the age of carts and carriages in the American Civil War, it first reached mass popularity in 1949 when Phyllis Duganne wrote as part of a tragic romantic short story “I remember once, in a childish outburst of temper, that I told Springer I was sick of being the perpetual ‘gooseberry’, the unnecessary third wheel”.

This story was included in one of that year’s editions of the Saturday Evening Post and has been used frequently around America since then, with it now being a common phrase in most English-speaking countries. 


Just like a third wheel has no purpose on a two-wheeled carriage, an extra person who is unwanted or decides to tag along with two people without asking can also be referred to as a “third wheel”.