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The dashboard in a car has taken on something of the meaning of an instrument panel. So much so that Microsoft, Apple and others have at one time or another come out with software dashboards that you can fiddle with on your computer.
But the dashboard in a car is named after the dashboards of an earlier time.
In 1846, when the word first appeared in the printed record a dashboard was a barrier between the riders of a sleigh or wagon and the flying mud and water coming from a horse’s hooves.
At first, back in the thirteenth century the word dash meant to hit violently or to break something into pieces. In this dash was pretty close in meaning to smash although smash didn’t appear in English until 400 years later.
This is why we still sometimes hear people saying that their hopes were dashed.
The reason we call a broken pencil line a dashed line is because editors violently removed words from manuscripts by striking them out with a dash of their red pencil.
By the 1500s to dash something could also mean “to throw it violently” and by the late 1600s this included throwing water.
So dash had become synonymous with splash, also a word that was only just coming into the language by the early 1700s.
Thus a dashboard was at first really a splashboard.
It was in 1904 that the dashboard appeared in a car and it did so as a sort of analogy to those boards that stood in front of the passengers of a horse drawn vehicle, since in an automobile there would be no hooves to dash water and mud at the riders.
Furthermore when cars were a new phenomenon there were too few of them to worry about water or mud from a car ahead of you.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.