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Nurdle

A pending court case between Colgate and Glaxo has reminded me of this invaluable word, whose wide circulation and range of senses is a wonder, even more so because it rarely features in dictionaries.

Some know it best as a term in cricket, for a tap by the batsman that pushes the ball into a space among the fielders in order to take a quick single (“One of our habitual opponents was captained by a man who could, and often did, nurdle the ball down to fine leg”, noted The Times in January this year). It’s also a term in tiddlywinks for playing a wink so close to the pot that it’s almost impossible for your opponent to pot it. (“To escape from a nurdle you need a university degree, an agile wrist and a zany sense of humor”, the Toronto Star wrote in 1985). A couple of English pubs play a game called nurdling, which has been described as “getting old pennies down a hole in a bench”. Generally speaking, if you’re nurdling you’re faffing about doing nothing very constructive.

A nurdle in the plastics business, on the other hand, is properly a pre-production pellet, the basic feedstuff that plastic products are made from. When such plastics biodegrade in the oceans they turn back into particles that have been given the same name.

In the court case sense, nurdle is the term in the US for the “correct” amount of toothpaste one should put on one’s toothbrush, a squeeze of the tube that exactly covers the whole length of the bristles. The news report in which I found it said, “The complaint seeks a declaration that Colgate’s ‘Triple Action’ phrase and three stripe nurdle are not confusingly similar to Glaxo’s ‘Triple Protection’ phrase and nurdle design in other colours.” Let us hope that this dispute is cleared up soon, for the sake of our communal peace of mind. I’m told that we must credit the American Dental Association for its work in the 1990s to popularise “nurdle” in this sense.

It has been claimed that nurdle was coined by the writers of the US TV show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, with farkel, bippy and others. The true origin, as any Brit of mature years can tell you, was in the crazy mind of Michael Bentine, one of the original Goons and the chief perpetrator of a BBC television show between 1960-64 called It’s a Square World. He invented a spoof pub game, drats, supposedly played by Somerset yokels. It was dangerous, with the main risk being that of nurdling, an unspecified but catastrophic error (“Drat me! — He’s Nurdled!!”). It was picked up by scriptwriters Barry Took and Marty Feldman for a fake folk song performed by Rambling Syd Rumpo (Kenneth Williams) in the BBC radio comedy show Round The Horne (“Early one morning / Just as my splod was rising / I heard a maiden scream in the valley below / O don't nurdle me / O never nurdle me / How could you use your cordwangle so!”).

The word entered the American lexicon in 1967 when reports appeared in various US media about a mad pub group in Totton, near Southampton, that actually played Bentine’s game, under the title of the Nurdling Championships.

Truly, it’s a word for all seasons and occasions.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Aug. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-nur1.htm
Last modified: 14 August 2010.