The Horseless Dashboard

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

The term dashboard dates from the 1840s or so.

What? you exclaim. There were no cars in the 1840s! How could there have been dashboards?

You’re right about cars, of course. Karl Benz developed the first car in Germany, acquiring a patent in 1886. Henry Ford’s Model T, regarded as the first successfully mass-produced car, appeared in 1927.

But those autos, you’ll recall, were dubbed horseless carriages (though the term dates back to steam engines). That term demonstrates humans’ propensity for comparing what’s new with what came before, and actual carriages, that is, horsey-carriages, included a dashboard. It didn’t warn the driver that the horse needed fuel or that passengers’ seatbelts weren’t fastened. It didn’t flash or beep.

It consisted instead of a board that protected the driver from mud flung up by the horses’ hooves, mud that was said to be dashed. Dash can have the meaning “hurl,” “smash,” “crash,” “throw,” “toss,” or “pitch.” Think of ships dashed upon the rocks. An angry executive might dash his lunch onto a wall. Psalm 91 says that angels will bear you up “lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Dirt would be dashed back upon a carriage’s driver, and the dashboard shielded him or her. Modern dashboards are in roughly the same position, that is, in front of the driver, and the name carried over to the new-fangled vehicle.

I looked this word up because the page on this site where I find reader statistics is called the Dashboard, piquing my curiosity. The website’s dashboard contains useful information, like our modern cars’ dashboards. The meaning has strayed from its etymological roots.

No mud is dashed into my face as I face my screen. Only pleasant, informative comments, which you should feel free to add below.

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10 Responses to The Horseless Dashboard

  1. Kathy says:

    Michael–I love the the “sedimentation of language” phrase.

    “Running on Empty” is a cool, evocative song.

  2. Kathy says:

    Roger–Another word I ran across in my reading was “broadcasting”–formerly the tossing/casting out of seeds by farmers (a process I know you know about). I like these archaic words that get transposed to new-fangled things. Like “digital” coming from the Latin word for “finger.”

  3. Kathy says:

    Thank you, Doreen!

  4. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the additions and corrections, David!

  5. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Your mentioning libraries made me think of card catalogues, a term which we (at my house at least) still sometimes use instead of merely catalogue.

  6. Roger Talbott says:

    Yes. Also, bicycles have saddles because horses do. In fact, that is why they are so uncomfortable. Only recently have designers begun to rethink how our rear ends park on top of bicycles.

  7. Michael Whitely says:

    Your digs into the sedimentation of language are always interesting but this one on the dashboard is gold. Post Modern Jukebox videos use the same process in reverse, taking a Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber song and giving it the Andrews Sisters treatment. People from an older generation can then understand the words. Dashboard/car got me thinking about Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty. Did sixties people only play things late at night in a boozy haze or is it that I don’t listen, because these lines are really good: Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive Tryin’ not to confuse it with what you do to survive.

  8. Doreen says:

    I love your curiosity about words that you share with us! I’d never thought about a dashboard before, and now know all about them.

  9. Dave Ewing says:

    Update: The Ford Model T was produced between 1908-1927. The last Model T came off the assembly line on May 26, 1927. By the way, some of my grandmother’s recipes ingredients include a “dash” of salt.

    Who could forget the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore?
    “To the top of the porch!
    To the top of the wall!
    Now dash away! Dash away!
    Dash away all”

  10. Sarah Becker says:

    In the nineties, when people thought that libraries would disappear in favor of electronic media, there was much talk of items which became obsolete at times of technological change.

    One was the buggy whip holder. What carriage was complete without one? Just the name gives you the flavor of a forgotten time and place.

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