New words

It is not often I go to RFI’s website to expand my vocabulary in English. I go to the french news site to hear French spoken in a Parisian accent, to read it written in the northern vernacular… and to read news in English with a non-north-american point of view. Which can be very refreshing.

And every so often they surprise me with a word or phrase, in English, which completely baffles me.

Today’s article about the heat wave France is experiencing was just such a moment. As it began to chase down the rabbit of what France will look like in the future as the country adapts to climate change,  there it was:

And grass tracks will replace macadamed lanes and roads wherever possible.

What in the world is a macadamed[en.WT] lane?

It turns out to be nothing mysterious. A scotsman named John MacAdam[en.WP], being financially involved in turnpikes in the Scottish Lowlands, became obsessed with improving them. Taking recent improvement from France and England, he developed a road model which was cheaper to build but had similar qualities of being a dry, stable road for horses and the new standard of a 10 cm/4″ iron tire on cart wheels.

He published booklets, available online, on his approach which popularized it, even being translated into other languages. The method soon became an adjective and a verb; roads underwent macadamisation, such a road could be called a macadam, and passed into common use – at least in England.

The method, however, continued to develop. Water-bound macadam was a method of combining rock dust and water to fill the joints between the smaller surface stones, improving the stability and smoothness of the road further. The arrival of motor cars, however, road dust became a serious issue, and tar-bound macadam, where tar was sprayed on the surface, was one solution. Edgar Hooley patented a mixture of tar and iron-works slag under the name tarmac.

While MacAdam’s technique relied on standardized stone sizes and shapes, the basic model of layers of  rock with specific characteristics still undergirds modern road construction. Asphalt, bituminous, concrete are all common names for modern road surfaces,  but one still hears or sees some of these older terms around however misapplied they might be.