February 15th, 2008

Vanitas desk

Splay redux

Yesterday's poll was poorly designed, inasmuch as it left out the most obvious answer, but it yielded good results both in spite of that and for that reason. For that reason, because it meant many of you responded with the first example to come to mind of use of the verb splay. Those uses encompasses a wide range of body parts, and a number of animals, including horses (and foals), cats, and moles. Had I included the verb form in the poll, I never would have learned what a wide range of imagery it conjures in your collective brains. Nor might I have learned that, in addition to the OED's meanings for the noun, it can refer to planetary scattering, resinous stains, and kidney calculations.

In spite of the bad design, because the poll showed the results for which I'd posted it in the first place. Not a one of you associated "splay" with roadways. Neither did I, until last Sunday. We were driving down the M6, probably somewhere near Wigan, when my eyes caught a sign by the side of the road which read something like this: "Police Note: Irregular vehicles pull over in splay."

Not knowing what a splay was in this context, it was not immediately evident just where those vehicles should do their pulling over. Seconds later, right after an on-ramp, there was a jagged extra bit of paved surface inset into the bank by the side of the motorway. "Ah ha!", thought I. "A splay!"

I looked the word up, finally, when putting together yesterday's poll. Meaning d. in the OED was this: "A tapered widening of the carriageway at a road intersection or corner provided in order to increase visibility for motorists." In other words, technically, the splay was part of the on-ramp, not specifically the jagged extra bit of paved surface sticking out off of it.

I am reassured to know that none of you would have been absolutely certain what to do when confronted with that road sign either.