Sunday, June 8, 2014

What is so dashing about a dashboard?

    "The ages live in history," Oscar Wilde once wrote, "through their anachronism." 
     Seeing something that at first seems out of place in its epoch, like "ROCKET" emblazoned on the heavily-riveted iron boiler of this early 19th century British locomotive, can cause you to pause and wonder.
      The Rocket was built by a father and son team, George and Robert Stephenson, in 1829—built for speed, briefly achieving a jaw-dropping 36 miles per hour at the Rainhill Trials that year, causing it to be picked as the design for the Liverpool & Manchester Railroad, beating three other contenders, including John Ericsson, who would go on to design the first ironclad warship, the USS Monitor, for the Union navy in the Civil War. 
      When I saw the vehicle, on display at the Science Museum in London,* for a moment I pondered if we got our word "rocket" from this train engine. 
    But I immediately realized that the word was already in use, 15 years earlier, when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Defence of Fort McHenry," the poem that would become the Star Spangled Banner: "And the Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air..."
     Rockets were used in battle far earlier than we might think. The Congreve rocket was used effectively in the Napoleonic wars, though they were not particularly accurate when it came to hitting targets.      
      Before that, they were used mostly as fireworks. The definition of "rocket" from Samuel Johnson's magnificent 1755 dictionary doesn't mention military use, but describes a rocket only as: "An artificial firework, being a cylindrical case of paper filled with nitre, charcoal and sulfur, and which mounts in the air to a considerable height, and then bursts."
Distaff spindles
(The British Museum)
     Johnson gives its etymology merely as "[Rocchetto, Italian]"** and leaves it at that, which is shame, because if you dig deeper you find quite a tale: rocchetto is a diminutive for rocca, which is Italian for "distaff." 
      A distaff is a spindle that wool is wound on during spinning—though if the word rings a bell, it's probably not from making yarn, but because in more recent decades the word lingered as a code to describe the realm of women,  a tad condescendingly. "With all her distaff classmates mooning nightly by their phones for a call from one jock or another..." Frederick Exley writes in the late 1970s in Last Notes from Home. 
From a 1634 British book
"composing all manner of fire-works
or Triumph and Recreation."
    Italians named their fireworks "rocchettos," or "little spindles" because that's what they looked like. They were small cylinders on sticks that resembled the distaff from a spinning wheel (before fins were invented, the stick was needed to point the rocket in the direction it would more-or-less go). 
      As far as how the Italians named that part of the spinning wheel, well, the evidence is murky, but all you have to do is take a look at the leaves of the rocket plant for a hint (although maybe the plants were named for the fireworks. Cause and effect can get switched over the centuries, and you can't make assumptions. For instance, the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, are not named for the little yellow songbirds found there, as one might suppose. The name canary is derived from Latin for dog, canis. The islands were named in Roman times their large dogs; the bird was noticed later and named for the islands).
Rocket leaves
      But it's pleasing to imagine the plant came first. There's a joy in finding low-tech origins hidden in modern words. One of the more unexpected words in Johnson's dictionary is "computer" which, in the mid-1700s was a person, a "reckoner, accountant, calculator." Before picking apart "rocket"—to idle away the time before dinner on a Saturday—my favorite example of this was "dashboard," which Mr. Garman, my cagey 7th grade English teacher, once used to bore the rest of our class at Roehm Junior High School and fascinate me, lodging in my mind for 40 years.
      Think about it. The control panel of an automobile is called a dashboard. Why would that be? What is dashing?  The reason it's called that is when cars were still buggies pulled by horses, there was a low, angled board at foot level to keep horses from flinging mud up on the driver as they dashed. When newfangled automobiles were rolled out, the name carried over because it was in roughly the same location, even though the original use was gone.
      Cars are filled with anachronisms—the "trunk" of course harkens back to the era when a large suitcase was strapped to the back, the "glove compartment" on the passenger time to when that passenger was often a lady a lady invariably wore gloves. 
      I think that's what Wilde meant when he commented on anachronism making history live. It is a thread that connects us today with the people of the past. The next time you read of the latest rocket boosting a satellite into space***, or hurling robot explorers toward some distant planet, think back on those Italian wives and sisters and mothers, working flax methodically around their roccos, perhaps gazing out a window at the stars.

* To visit the Science Museum in London, and see how well the Brits do this kind of thing, is to forever cringe in shame at the corporate puffery and Hollywood junk foisted on the public by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

** Anyone familiar with how Samuel Johnson constructed his dictionary knows that there was a lot of guesswork involved, so the connection between "rocket" and "rocchetto" could be more whimsical than real. If you consult Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, he offers a completely different etymology for "rocket"as "probably from the root of crack and racket." Although Webster's sounds more like the hunch of a man who didn't know Italian, and I would place my bets on Johnson.

*** A "rocket" has been an engine thrusting a missile into space for nearly a century, since inventor and physicist Robert Goddard began using the term. "It is possible to convert the rocket from a very inefficient heat engine into the most efficient heat engine that ever has been devised," he wrote, in 1919.



  1. "Little spindles' brings to mind another Italian metaphorical contribution, albeit one that has not yet migrated to other languages. Americans visiting central Italy are surprised to find that Tuscan bread is unsalted, evidently not a new phenomenon, since Dante cited the need to dwell among people who put salt in their bread as one of the penalties of exile. The seeming absence of savour is untroubling to Tuscans because of the uses their loaf is put to. When stale it is added to one of their excellent soups as a thickener. With the fresh slices that accompany lunch or dinner they "fare la scarpetta," or make the little shoe. Your crust of bread is the "little shoe" that walks around the plate capturing whatever sauces remain. If not the term itself then at least the concept deserves wider application, at least to those cuisines producing sauces worthy of capture.

    And, as everyone knows,rocket is also a vegetable - akin to colewort.

    1. I knew the Dante line -- "you will know how salty the taste of another man's bread and how weary it is going up and down another man's stairs," but I thought it a comment on the bitterness of exile (I've also seen it translated "bitter the taste.") I didn't realize there was a factual basis behind the quote. Really? Unsalted, to this day? Incredible. And I had better work rocket, the plant, into the piece. I was worried it was getting too long and figured I would ignore that aspect.

  2. The Dante quote is ambiguous, and I'm not sure it's proof of the historical lineage of the practice. No one I asked really knew. I asked an old man why they didn't put salt in the bread and he said "Because is isn't needed."

  3. Concerning the first footnote, although I dig the submarine, I share the same shame over the MSI, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Field too (despite many awesome things to see there). The feel of both places is decidedly kiddie-oriented, and exhibits are frequently maladroit, dreary, sometimes comically long-in-the-tooth, sometimes clunkily populist. Whenever I've been to either place, I come away wishing that they took their numerous fascinating and notable offerings (especially those of the Field) and put together a more dignified, slicker museum experience for all ages.

  4. On the rockets used at Baltimore, look up the Congreve rocket. They were an assault weapon designed to attack forts, not as illumination. The British had a special ship, HMS Erebus, fitted with rocket launchers.

    1. You are correct, and I've altered the text to bring it in line with reality. (I had imagined rockets being used more for illumination).

  5. Time to change your side story page.

  6. Great article — I especially like the explanation for the term dashboard and the history behind the name given the Canary Islands. I also thought the quotation about “the taste of another man’s salty bread” alluded to a bitter exile.

  7. The word "distaff" is commonly used in the context of horse racing, to describe a race being run by female horses.


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