Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Wikipedia won't work!

A new technology, the Kindle, has taken me to some old novels, as I have said, and Hamlin Garland's Preface to his Son of the Middle Border had taken me to his friend and mentor William Dean Howells, 15 books for 99¢.  Now I've begun "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885).  First was "Indian Summer" (1886), which was first in the Kindle set, published the year of my grandfather Phillips' birth.  I became very eager to see whether "Indian Summer" got anyone married by the end of the book; with Howells, it is by no means obvious.  But I was brought up short when his characters, near the opening of Silas Lapham, riding behind a fine horse, took turns looking around the dashboard to observe the horse's gait.  Dashboard?  I know what that is on my Toyota Echo and what it was on a Model T Ford, for that matter, whence it is the name of that handy Utility in the Dock of my Macs and in turn an option at the top of my blogspot New Post page and the name of the page that gathers all my blogging stuff conveniently so that I can see, e.g., my latest stats and wonder why my Opera Nobilia (only a few months old) has had nearly 800 hits and this Essays not quite 400.  I'm always surprised that there are so many for either, but quite happy about it.
Anyhow, Wikipedia won't tell me what a dashboard was in 1885 or when the word was introduced.  I went through three pages of hits.  It did tell me everything about its use in software!  I went to my "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles" (in two volumes, 1973), a 'gift' that made buying five books in one year from Book of the Month Club not too onerous.  It is a wonderful dictionary.  The word dates from 1859, and I visualized it pretty well: 'a board or leathern apron in the front of a vehicle, to catch the mud thrown up by the hooves of the horses...' (whence for motor vehicles, as we know it, but on the very early ones, for which you had to wear dusters, very much as for the hooves, except that it was for the tire-treads).  I'd have to go to the whole OED for an explanation of why 'dash', unless it's that the word in architecture, dashing roof waste and water away from the wall, was adopted, if that is the older usage.  An interesting word that I'd never wondered about before.   As when Hamlin Garland forced me to consider what the Golden Gate looked like viewed from the hills before there was a bright red-orange bridge (1936).  And that paint: is it the kind of paint that in his novel Howells made Silas Lapham develop and make his fortune from?  My impulse anyway was right: reading literary fiction between the administrations of Lincoln and Wilson is most rewarding.