Ay, there's the rub

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Ay, there's the rub

Post by dwisbon » Sun Feb 20, 2005 2:33 am

I have been having a debate with several friends about the origin and meaning of the phrase: "Ay, there's the rub". I believe it first came from Shakespeare in the famous soliloquy in Hamlet. I was wondering if it had been used before that, and what a translation is to current language.
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Ay, there's the rub

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Feb 20, 2005 3:47 pm

I had this from the Online Etymological Dictionary

rub (v.)
1377, perhaps related to E.Fris. rubben "to scratch, rub," and Low Ger. rubbeling "rough, uneven," or similar words in Scandinavian (cf. Dan. rubbe "to rub, scrub," Norw. rubba), of uncertain origin. Hamlet's there's the rub (1602) preserves a noun sense of "obstacle, inequality on ground" first recorded 1586 and common in 17c. To rub (someone) the wrong way is from 1883. To rub noses in greeting as a sign of friendship (attested from 1822) formerly was common among Eskimos, Maoris, and some other Pacific Islanders. Rub out "obliterate" is from 1567; underworld slang sense of "kill" is recorded from 1848, Amer.Eng. Rub off "have an influence on" is recorded from 1959.

I have to say that I have always taken the expression to mean “dilemma”, but I am prepared to be convinced otherwise.

Hamlet is having a discussion with himself on the merits of suicide. If he by “perchance to dream” he means living in the afterlife, would “there’s the rub” mean, “but I would have a serious problem if there isn’t one”?
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Bob in Wales

Ay, there's the rub

Post by Phil White » Sun Feb 20, 2005 5:21 pm

The Online Merriam Wester has this as part of its definition:
1 a : an unevenness of surface (as of the ground in lawn bowling)
b : OBSTRUCTION, DIFFICULTY <the rub is that so few of the scholars have any sense of this truth themselves -- Benjamin Farrington>
c : something grating to the feelings (as a gibe or harsh criticism)
d : something that mars serenity
The 1586 citation in the OED and in the Online Etymology dictionary is in Hooker's History of Ireland in Holinshed II “Whereby appeareth how dangerous it is to be a rub, when a king is disposed to sweep an alley”), where it is a bowling term used metaphorically (see below).

There is, however, an earlier occurrence in a delightful work "The Paine of Pleasure", attributed to Anthony Munday, although his authorship has been disputed. The "rub" here is in the Fourteenth Pleasure (Bowling), where it means an irregularity in the bowling green. The word occurs several times in the Fourteenth pleasure. "The Paine of Pleasure" was published on 17 October 1580.
(The Paine of Pleasure: a modern edition with an introduction proposing Edward de Vere’s authorship, Sarah Smith, 2002)

It is quite feasible that this was the commonly understood meaning, and that Shakespeare was using a metaphor which subsequently went into more general usage.

The root Germanic verb ríban has been passed on to most Germanic languages and dialects with various additional meanings, but strangely, there's no evidence for it in Anglo Saxon (Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch). Chaucer uses "rub" in the Merchant's Tale in more or less the meaning we normally associate with it "He rubbed her upon her tender face,", (in this case, of course, "stroked").

And the Shakespeare?

'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.


It's generally interpreted roughly as follows: [compared with struggling with life's difficulties], death is something to be wished for. It's like sleeping, and perhaps dreaming. And yet that's the difficulty with that line of thought. Maybe the dreams of death will be worse than the worst that this life has to offer.

Bob,
Beware of the online etymology dictionary! I mistrust anyone who plagiarizes liberally and doesn't quote his sources (except in the most general terms). It's a phenomenal project for a single person, but most appears to me to be lifted from standard sources.

Post scriptum: Just spoke to my father, and he says the term "rub" is still used in bowling, but generally to mean hitting another bowl inadvertantly and changing the direction of one's own bowl.
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Ay, there's the rub

Post by Phil White » Sun Feb 20, 2005 5:58 pm

BTW
For an entirely different take on Hamlet (but only for those with an installed flash player and broadband, or a lot of patience...)
http://uninteresting.myby.co.uk/noeffort/hamlet.htm
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Ay, there's the rub

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Feb 20, 2005 10:14 pm

Thanks for the tip Phil, I appreciate your advice.

"The rub of the green" meaning good luck throughout a game is still widely used. I had assumed that it had come from bowls, but not that long ago. Just a thought though, surely bowls at that time would be a game similar to boules (pétanque) which in the modern game can be played on any surface EXCEPT grass.
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Bob in Wales

Ay, there's the rub

Post by Phil White » Sun Feb 20, 2005 11:47 pm

Sorry, Bob. Even my father's not old enough to be able to help there.
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Ay, there's the rub

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Feb 21, 2005 4:56 am

Phil, I clicked on your link to the play and discovered that we have been the victims of a cruel hoax these many years. It turns out that the dialogue in question is actually "Yo! Threes da grub!"

I don't think there's much mystery about what that means.
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