AMERICANS call it an eraser, and if an English-speaking visitor should innocently ask for a rubber, the response could well be shocked embarrassment.
In contemporary American usage, a rubber is a condom – and if that’s not enough confusion, the material we call India rubber actually comes from Brazil.
It all began when a scientist called Joseph Priestley who discovered around 1770 that a small chunk of latex imported from Brazil could make pencil marks disappear by rubbing.
This strange substance, which then had few other uses, was soon called “rubber”, or India rubber – as a result of Brazil being mistaken for the West Indies (itself a minomer, attributable to Columbus having a poor sense of direction).
Strictly speaking, the material’s name was “caoutchouc” which the Spaniards brought back to Europe in the 16th century was derived from the native Brazilian word “cauchuc.”
Howard’s New Royal Encyclopaedia of 1788 defines it as: “Very useful for erasing the strokes of black lead pencils, and is popularly called rubber and lead-eater.”
After Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanisation in 1839, rubber quickly became a household word, to such an extent that its original “rubout” derivation has become largely obscured.
But the inventiveness of the English language soon spawned new derivatives. “Rubberneck” may seem a relatively modern colloquialism for sightseers who crane their necks and look around inquisitively, but it appeared in London’s Pall Mall magazine as long ago as 1899.
American usage probably pre-dates the Pall Mall reference which explains the meaning as: “T rubberneck, or more precisely – to rubber – is to crane the neck in curiosity, to pry around the corner.”
But where does that leave bridge players, bowlers, and other sporty types who play a “rubber” or series of matches so that a tie is broken and a winner will emerge?
Some suggest that the term derives from the “rub out” effect of the deciding match, cancelling any drawn positions prevailing from earlier rounds.
But the OED does not substantiate this theory, and can only add that this sense of “rubber” or “rubbers” is of obscure origin, with the earliest reference dating back to a 1599 description of a game of bowls.
It would thus seem that rubber’s inherent confusion goes back even before Columbus and the evolution of American English.