Rules of the road

And many people apparently think that “Yield” means “Floor It!”

Dear Word Detective:  I really need the answer to this question. In all of the information I see they refer to the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) as “The rules of the road” Well, last I checked, there are no roads on the water. I have been told the phrase goes back to ancient times about a strait in the Mediterranean sea. Can you help me? — Matt Komara.

Hey, cool. I looked up COLREGS (all caps, natch) and discovered it is the accepted abbreviation (sort of) for the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 1972. This was apparently a good idea, because, according to Wikipedia, “Prior to the development of a single set of international rules and practices, there existed separate practices and various conventions and informal procedures in different parts of the world, as advanced by various maritime nations. As a result there were inconsistencies and even contradictions that gave rise to unintended collisions.” Yeah, right, “unintended.” Nice oil tanker ya got there. Be a shame if something unintentionally collided with it, know what I mean?

I remember reading many years ago about the L’Arbre du Ténéré (Tree of Tenere) in the Sahara. It was just a humble acacia tree, but for many, many years it was the only tree standing in several hundred square miles of vacant desert in North Africa. Unfortunately (and improbably), it was knocked down and killed by a drunken truck driver in 1973. So I guess even something as big and mostly vacant as the ocean really does need traffic rules.

I’m curious about the story you were told tracing the use of “rules of the road” in regard to maritime regulations to “a strait in the Mediterranean.” It’s true that confined waterways such as harbor entrances or the Straits of Gibraltar (to which they were probably referring) make proper navigation etiquette especially important. But the phrase “rules of the road” does not have a maritime origin, so that story, whatever it is, is irrelevant. “Rules of the road” originally referred to actual roads and highways on land.

Interestingly, “rules of the road” was originally singular: “the rule of the road.” The phrase first appeared in print in the late 18th century, and thus dealt with horse-drawn carriages, mounted riders, etc., not automobiles and trucks. The original “Rule of the Road” governed on which side two vehicles (or riders) traveling in opposite directions should pass each other, i.e., on which side of the road you should drive. It also dictated in which situations a vehicle had the right of way and when it should give way. These rules and many others were codified in the Highway Code in Britain in 1930, and today every country in the world has equivalent laws. Of course, opinions have varied from Day One as to the need for such rules (“There are seasons when the rule of the road ought to be almost incontrollable. I think in the dark the rule ought to be abided by, but when in the light, I think you have a right to judge [etc.],” 1798), and I happen to know people who maintain that stop signs, for instance, don’t mean you have to literally “stop.” More of a “serving suggestion,” I guess.

“Rules of the road” had been put to use in a nautical sense by the late 1800s (“A variety of useless discussions … one on the rule of the road at sea,” Punch, 1873), and as soon as airplanes began to proliferate, “rules of the road” for aviators were established as well. By this time, the appealing alliteration of the phrase had worked its magic on the public, and “rules of the road” came into wide metaphorical use meaning “a set of unspoken rules or practices” or “how things are done” in a given field or social group, whether codified in print or not (“If you want to maximize your savings with coupons, it’s important to know the rules of the road at the supermarkets and drugstores you frequent,” News & Observer, 2012).

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