In History, Sport, Words

Running race

If you’re shivering in your car right now, ruing the fact that you didn’t pack the Thermos and still haven’t got round to buying those snow chains, spare a thought for the residents of Telfer, Australia. Not only is this remote mining community about as far from anywhere as it’s possible to get, the temperature today hit 45˚C, according to

And before you start complaining that your fingertips are going numb, consider the plight of the people of Selagoncy (or Shologonsky or even Шологонский национальный наслег if you insist), who are currently getting on with it in the teeth of a -56.2˚C chill.

Makes your blood freeze just thinking about it. The best thing you can do is think warming thoughts: Greek islands, a time before Brexit, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer… you’ll soon be feeling the heat again.

We’ve used the word heat as a metaphor for the heat we feel inside pretty much ever since we started using the word heat as a word (we’re talking Old English). Heat can mean pressure (especially from the cops), spiciness (including the sexual kind) or excitement (especially the sexual kind). In fact, one thing I remember from my brief flirtation with German at school is that “Ich bin heiss” doesn’t mean “I’m hot”, it means “I’m on heat”. Please remember that when you go back into the negotiations, Theresa!

But how, I’m sure you’re wondering, did heat come to mean a qualifying race? What’s that got to do with the climate in Telfer? And why is a dead heat so much more exciting than a dead rubber, when a heat and a rubber are pretty much the same thing? And if you mix the two, it smells horrible. Why is that?

Back in the 1600s, when kings weren’t hiding in oak trees or being beheaded, they enjoyed a spot of horse racing. And when they took their horse for a gallop to prepare it for a race, they called this a heat, for the obvious reason that they were warming the horse up. The word then came to be used for the race itself, and later for a qualifying race in a bigger contest.

The origin of rubber, in the sense of a sporting contest, is not certain, but it probably has something to do with friction. Rubber itself is so-called because it was first used for rubbing things out. A rub, as in Hamlet’s ‘Ay, there’s the rub’, was an obstacle or difficulty, and hence two adversaries might have been said to be rubbing up against each other. Hence rubber.

Something to chew on as you’re wondering why you’re tyres don’t seem to be gripping any more.

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