Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Metalled Road

Words, in seems, have always fascinated a subset of humanity, whereas the majority speak “as me my mouth has grown”—to translate, literally, a common German saying (“Wie mir der Mund gewachsen ist”). I first consciously remember reading that phrase, “a metalled road,” in a history of the Civil War; from the context I gathered that a tarred road was meant, or so at least I understood it. Why it would have been called metalled puzzled me, but not enough to lay the book aside. After that, like a tiny bit of rock inside a shoe, the phrase came up occasionally to irritate me for a moment, but never enough to sit, take the damned shoe off, and shake the pesky little thing out. Now, recently, it happened again, and this time my resistance snapped. Herewith the explanation of the “metalled road.” Writing such posts on words or phrases always makes me feel like a weird friend I had in high school who had no friends, never mind girl friends, but had a basement full of parakeets; meandering from the subject, I once spent an afternoon living his passion in that basement, staring at these, for me, quite ugly birds and breathing in that strange atmosphere of feathery mold. Metalled road? Well, whatever. Long time ago. Tarmac to you.

Curious history. Metalled roads have nothing to do with metal, nor metal with metalled roads, but both have an intimate connection to mining. A mine, in Latin, is called metallum. Aha. Of course. Things start to unpack. The big product of mines was ore which, smelted, yielded such things as bronze, copper, and iron. All of these came from the metallum and therefore their generic collective name was metal. But, of course, mines also yielded other things. They yielded stone and rock and gravel. A carefully constructed road, such the Roman road, was made of layers of stone packed inside dug trenches. Big rocks made the foundation, pressed-down gravel and crushed rock constituted the middle layer; paving stones completed the structure. The phrase “road metal” came into use to distinguish one product of a mine or quarry from another. Later on tar was used to give a binding to the crushed rock. While we’re on the subject, tarmac comes from the name of a Scotsman called John Loudon McAdam; he pioneered an updated technique of making Roman-style roads; his technique came to be called macadam, a method of construction—thus spreading rock on prepared road beds. The rock was carefully selected for size. When tar was applied to these roads, we got the name tarmac.

The stone is out of the shoe. The strange butterfly is pinned to the wall. The new parakeet is in its cage…


  1. This reminds me of the roads in the Adirondacks that used to be paved using gravel from the tailings of the garnet mines. When the sun struck them just right it was like driving over a pathway of diamonds.

  2. Your word passion is less smelly and certainly quieter than your wierdo high school buddie's... I'm thrilled to know the origine of both macadam and tarmac which are often used in french. Thanks digging this one up for us.

  3. What fun. Yes, I too love the word etomologies!