You know those family gatherings… Your whole tribe drive in and get together, say at Christmas, and rub shoulders for a while, maybe play some hockey (or table hockey), maybe get along or maybe there’s some friction. Seems like a suitable subject for tribology? Perhaps in parts, but likely not the parts you think. Which parts? Ah, there’s the rub.

This word is pronounced with the first syllable like tribe, not with a “short i“; it doesn’t sound like it’s the study of tribbles, however much you might want to cuddle up with them… though it could be the study of that cuddling. Tribology is not science fiction, you see; rather, it’s the science of friction.

Well, actually the science of surfaces rubbing together. Minimizing friction is often a matter of special concern. Lubrication engineering keeps the world running smoothly (remember: WD-40 for whatever doesn’t move that should – and duck tape for whatever moves that shouldn’t). In 1965, the chairman of a working group of lubrication engineers sought a nice, proper, scientific ology for his field. What did he do? He called the English Dictionary Department of the Oxford University Press. The person he spoke to relayed a Greek-derived suggestion given by one C.G. Hardie: tribo, from tribos “rubbing,” plus ology, which ultimately comes from logos, “word.” Tribology.

So, in other words, the Oxford English Dictionary not only knows exactly when and how this word came about, it (i.e., the people who make it) actually invented it. Those slippery beggars!

But of course it does run up against the effects of resemblance. The googly ology is fine and sets the tone and field well, but that trib – well, pace Chicago’s daily (Tribune is related to tribe – which is thought to come from the root that gives us three, but that’s a whole other story – and not to tribology), you’re likely to get some unexpected news. I can only hope it won’t cause tribulation (now, there’s a sibling to this word), but if it does, I will try apology. It just happens that the tribologist at your family gathering may ignore your family group dynamics (except inasmuch as they involve, for instance, lip gloss) in favour of studying your hockey puck’s slide… or getting bearings on the engines of the various cars parked out front.

5 responses to “tribology

  1. Not meaning to nit pick, but isn’t it “duct” tape?

  2. Actually, not originally, no. If I recall correctly, it originally was ‘duck’ tape, so named because it was waterproof (or at least water resistant).

    It got renamed to ‘duct’ tape through folk etymology – folks who felt that it made more sense to tape ducts than ducks, and who, perhaps, felt a bit daffy discussing ducks at all.

    Also, sadistic folks who enjoy watching people pronounce a word starting with a ‘t’ immediately after a word ending with a ‘t’. <shudder>

    Of course, I could be wrong about much of this, but that’s my understanding of the term’s history.

  3. I am pretty sure duck tape and duct tape are not related, except that there’s also a company called “Duck Tape” who makes duct tape. Also you can’t really use duct tape on ducts, they make different tape for that. “Cotton duck” is a kind of fabric, but “duct tape” isn’t like that and the term was around before anyone ever put adhesive on duck (if they ever even did).

    • Duck tape and duct tape refer to the the same thing; that much is sure. Which term was used first is up for debate. There’s a decent thread of etymology that indicates it was duck tape first, but there are gaps. Michael Quinion gives a very good run-down of the details at . He sides with duct tape as the original.

      I was originally going to put duct tape but then had a vague recollection that duck was the original term (but it was late so I didn’t double-check; anyway, both are used), and anyway it sticks out more. Which in this case is productive (produckive?), as we see!

  4. Pingback: triboluminescence | Sesquiotica

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