My cousin-in-law Cindy throws a wicked party. Especially if you’re a small child and it’s your birthday. The number of activities she put together at a recent multi-child do was staggering. (And so were some of the adults by the end.) A highlight was when they made a slimy goo they called flubber. To make it, you need three things: water, white glue, and borax.

Borax? Geez, who uses that anymore? Where do you even get it?

At the local Loblaws, of course. (For those not from around here, Loblaws is a large mainstream grocery-etc. chain.) It comes in boxes that look pretty retro (though it’s actually a new design that just borrows on old graphics). Evidently they’re banking on nostalgia or a yearning for a purer time.


That’s 20-Mule-Team Borax, mind! Not just any old borax. You can hear the crack of the mule-driver’s whip: “bo-rax!”

But borax is a brand name, right? Shouldn’t I be capitalizing it?

Hmm, no. It’s not. It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? A detergent product with a name of two syllables ending in x? You’d think that would be an obvious marketing confection of the 20th century. But you’d be off by centuries. Centuries.

You may be aware that borax contains the element boron (along with sodium, hydrogen, and oxygen). You might have thought that borax was derived from boron. In fact, exactly the reverse is the case – indeed, boron comes from boracic acid, which comes from borax. Boron was isolated in the early 1800s by Sir Humphrey Davy, who, as lovers of clerihews know, was not fond of gravy and lived in the odium of having discovered sodium. The English word borax was seen as such in English by the 1400s and was rendered as boras by Chaucer in the 1300s. It comes from Latin boracum or borax, which got it from Arabic boraq (variously pronounced), which probably got it from Persian burah.

So, now, you may know that the 20-mule team carried borax from California for the eastern markets. So what were the Persians doing there? They weren’t, of course; borax was first discovered in dry lake beds in Tibet and was carried on the Silk Road. It has since been found in other dry lake beds.

And in living rooms. And I don’t just mean the box I photographed on Cindy’s coffee table. Borax was an epithet applied to cheap, meretricious furniture of the Depression era – made of crappy wood and with overdone pseudo-marquetry designs simply printed on it. A hallmark of low-cost vulgarity. Tsk, darlings. How boring. Take an axe to it.

What, by the way, is borax – the white powder from dry lake beds, not the tawdry chests and desks – used for? Aw, heck, what isn’t is used for? Some people even put the stuff in food! It has a wide variety of manufacturing applications and is used for certain health care applications too, notably as a topical antifungal; it is a fire retardant and an ingredient in ceramic glazes; it can be used in making leather and wool, and in nuclear reactors; and it is a detergent, which is probably what people buy it for in Loblaws. That and the flubber.

Oh, and, of course, it is for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

Oh, wait, that’s Borat. But close, yes? Borax is more fun at parties, though.

4 responses to “borax

  1. Add a little water, and apparently it makes a good ant killer.

  2. Here in the lower 48 borax can also be purchased in Wal-Mart and most major super market chains. I helped my daughter make flubber for a science project to demonstrate coloids – the fourth state of matter, semi solids and a word with interesting flavor. Awesome fun to create and play with if you don’t mind finding it in the carpet for weeks afterwards. 😉

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  4. My dad (Irish/kiwi, born in rural New Zealand in 1902) used to say “poke the borax at” someone, meaning to “have them on”, give them a hard time, ridicule them. Always thought it a bit strange as boracic acid seemed to be a pretty mild substance — it was used in my youth to bathe sore eyes.

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