Stuck on Macs

Recently I was stuck on the tarmac at JFK in New York for about forty minutes waiting for my plane to take off and began musing on the word “tarmac.”

It’s an abbreviation of “tarmacadam”: a mixture of tar and crushed stones originally used for paving roads. It was invented by Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836), but very early on the spelling mutated to “tar macadam” and other variants using the spelling “macadam” rather than the original “McAdam.”

The French adopted the word with the same spelling of the inventor’s name: "Mac Adam" and “Mac-Adam.” It looks as if non-Scots were reluctant to use the original “Mc” form and resorted to the more phonetic spelling (though both spellings are common in Scotland).

When you are “immortalized” by having your name misspelled it’s a mixed blessing.

Newscasters love to use the word “tarmac” when discussing flight delays, though the airlines themselves are more prone to say “runway”; but the press did not invent this usage. By the second decade of the 20th century airport runways were commonly referred to as “tarmacs.”

Even when runways began to be made principally of concrete, they continued to be called “tarmacs” in both the US and UK. However, in Britain “tarmac” is commonly used to denote ordinary road surfaces as well, whereas in the US the word has become restricted to airports and used almost entirely in the context of flight delays.

Feeling stuck on my plane with the minutes ticking by, I felt a bit like Br’er Rabbit stuck to the tar baby in the 1880 Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus story. Harris may well have collected the tale from authentic African-American sources. Wikipedia notes that variants of this story occur in many cultures, including West African, Native American, South American, and even Indian tales.

Further musing on UK uses of “mac” I remembered that  raincoats are commonly called “mackintoshes”—abbreviated “mac” or “mack” in Britain. The process by which such waterproof coats were originally made was invented by Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), according to the Oxford English Dictionary “consisting of two or more layers of cloth cemented together with India rubber dissolved in naphtha.”

”Mac” became an informal name for any random Scot in England and was adopted in the US in the early 20th century as a generic term for any man whose name was unknown by the speaker, usually in an insulting or threatening context, often with the spelling slightly altered: “What’s it to you, Mack?” (Compare with “Bud,” used similarly.)

I’m typing this on a Macintosh computer, commonly referred to as a “Mac.” You can always tell non-Mac users when they spell the word in all caps: “MAC.” (See my entry on MAC/Mac for more details.)

Steve Jobs originally wanted to name the successor to the Apple II computer “McIntosh” after the apple thus named, but that spelling was already being used by the McIntosh Laboratory which built high-end audio equipment. The company refused to give him  a release to use the name, so the spelling was changed before the computer was marketed.

Well, I've been stuck on my Mac for long enough and I need to think about lunch—maybe a tasty bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese?

1 comment:

Peter Belenky said...

For no particular reason, your "tarmac" post reminded me of an account by a former colleague. During his WWII service, the Army Air Corps had been using Italian airfields to supply the partisans in Yugoslavia. On an intensely hot day, he watched a heavily laden bomber taxiing for takeoff, but instead of lifting, it sank into the runway. Too much tar in the tarmac, apparently.