I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tom McCarthy’s odd but absorbing novel Remainder, which Studiolum gave me a couple of years ago, and I was stopped by the sentence “The road was cambered, like most roads.” I didn’t think I knew the word, but my impression that it meant ‘arched’ was confirmed when I looked it up (AHD: camber “A slightly arched surface, as of a road, a ship’s deck, an airfoil, or a ski”), so I must have absorbed it from somewhere. (I asked my wife, who was familiar with it from skis.) It also has a specifically UK sense “a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed” (reflected in this Wikipedia article), but even though McCarthy is English I don’t think that meaning can be intended here, since it’s not true of “most roads.” I’m curious if this is a word most people are familiar with and I just haven’t run into much, or if it’s a fairly specialized term.

Also, the etymology is interesting; AHD says “From Middle English caumber, curved, from Old North French dialectal caumbre, from Latin camur, perhaps from Greek kamara, vault,” but “perhaps” should be taken with considerable salt according to J. Peter Maher in “‘Stone,’ ‘Hammer,’ and ‘Heaven’ in Indo-European Languages and Cosmology,” published in Approaches to Language: Anthropological Issues, edited by William C. McCormack and Stephen A. Wurm (Walter de Gruyter, 1978):

Benveniste compared a dubious Gk. word (kamára) with a highly ambiguous Iranian form, itself actually borrowed into Gk.: cf. Gk. kamára ‘(soldier’s) belt’. […] If this were not messy enough, Benveniste also brings in an extremely problematical Latin word from Vergil and Isidore of Seville, camur(us), referring to ‘inward curving’ (of cow’s horns). The comparative method of linguistics is damaged by such dubious comparisons.

I don’t know where the truth lies, but I always enjoy that kind of scholarly spleen.

Update. Having finished the book, I regret to report that I didn’t like it. It set up an intriguing situation that I thought could be resolved in either of two interesting ways, but it ended up in over-the-top melodrama possibly brought on by having seen too many movies (perhaps at the Ritzy, a local landmark mentioned more than once in the novel). That’s just my opinion, of course; Antoine Wilson and Liesl Schillinger loved it, and the wonderful Zadie Smith called it “one of the great English novels of the past ten years” (which is what impelled me to want to read it in the first place). But me, I didn’t like it. I may have been spoiled by too much Dostoevsky. Read the reviews and judge for yourself.


  1. It’s a familiar word to me. Maybe it’s more of a UK thing. I have the impression that most roads are indeed cambered slightly, in the sense that they are higher in the middle than at the edges, so that rain runs off. Although on the frequently repaired and richly potholed roads around where I live any original camber may be but a distant memory.

    Also, camber is one of the adjustments to the front wheels of a car, along with caster and toe-in:

  2. Stu Clayton says
  3. I have the impression that most roads are indeed cambered slightly, in the sense that they are higher in the middle than at the edges, so that rain runs off.

    Yes, exactly, cambered in the main sense, not the specifically UK one (“a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed”).

  4. marie-lucie says

    In French there is a verb cambrer (transitive) or se cambrer (pronominal), with the past participle cambré, and also the noun la cambrure. All have to do with a slight but definite and often graceful bend in something fairly rigid (a metal bar, a human spine, a bicycle wheel, among many other things). I am not sure if I would use if about the surface of a road.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I thought it might be related to chamfer — maybe a doublet — but apparently not.

    Modern roads are generally made with a tilt built into them at bends or curves. You don’t really notice except when they aren’t.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Familiar in the road-higher-in-the-middle sense, but not the “specifically UK” one, nor indeed the front-wheels thing. I’m by no means teh hardcorez when it comes to motoring, though.

  7. I think racetracks are said to have cambered corners even in the U.S.

  8. David Marjanović says

    I’m familiar with camber as the degree of curvature of a wing, i.e. the leading and the trailing edge are in the same plane, but the area between them is more or less vaulted.

    Very cambered roads are called bombiert in German, the first syllable evidently from French and pronounced accordingly (while Bombe “bomb” is nativized).

  9. marie-lucie says

    David M: Very cambered roads are called bombiert in German, the first syllable evidently from French and pronounced accordingly (while Bombe “bomb” is nativized).

    The French adjective is bombé, which describes a more curvy shape than cambré. Some children when still small (e.g. preschool) have le front bombé, a rounded forehead. You could not say le front cambré because the forehead always have some degree of curvature. while bombé implies a higher degree.

  10. Brit here. I associate ‘camber’ more with slightly arched. A tilt at a bend or curve I tend to call ‘superelevation’ (especially of rail lines or velodromes/race tracks) — which the wp article also uses. I don’t use ‘cant’/’canted’ in that tilted sense.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    I have a vague sense of having heard “cambered” to describe banked curves of race tracks in AmEng, but because cambering in the tire-angling sense mentioned by David L. is very important for race cars (and indeed how flat via tilted the racing surface is will affect the optimal camber of the tires — and on an oval track where all the turning will be in one direction it is optimital to use different camber for the “inside” tires than the “outside” ones) there is a risk of ambiguity so the less high-falutin’ word “banked” for the track may be more common. Here the official website of the only NASCAR track I’ve ever walked on the racing surface of (when I was a teenager back in the early ’80’s and jumped the fence on a non-race day out of a spirit of scientific inquiry) uses “banking” as a technical term, explaining that it’s 9 degrees on the straightaways and 24 degrees on the turns:

  12. Stu Clayton says

    le front bombé

    Not to forget the ice-cream cannonball known as Bombe Alaska.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Read the reviews and judge for yourself.

    How about reading the book and judging for yourself ?

  14. any chance that Greek / Iranian (?) word for belt is a distant relative of cummerbund?

  15. marie-lucie says

    Stu: the ice-cream cannonball known as Bombe Alaska.

    When I was young and refrigerators/freezers were not yet a standard feature of French kitchens, on very special occasions my mother ordered from the pâtissier-glacier a frozen dessert called une bombe glacée to be delivered at a precise time after most of the meal would have been consumed. I think it was enclosed in a spherical mold.

  16. The main sense of “camber” is near the edge of my active vocabulary though comfortably within my passive vocabulary. For the other sense, no. I guess “banked turn” is what I could call it.

  17. Graham Asher says

    It’s a very familiar word to me, too, but (as an Englishman) I’ve never heard it used for corner banking. To me it just means the normal raising of the centre of the road so that the road is slightly convex. I suspect the word is connected with the Celtic root ‘cam’ meaning bent or twisted, but I haven’t the time to check right now.

  18. David Marjanović says

    the Celtic root ‘cam’

    More like *kamp-, as in the river Kamp, a northern tributary of the Danube in Austria; also Greek kamptos with the same meaning, as in Camptosaurus of the curved back.

  19. des von bladet says

    Very familiar for both roads and guitar fretboards.

  20. How about reading the book and judging for yourself ?

    So you never read reviews? You read every book you think you might be interesting? Either you don’t much care for books or you never do anything else.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Mostly I buy only books referred to in footnotes of other books from which I profited in some way – sociology, philosophy, history. I don’t look for authoritative backup, but merely related thoughts. I don’t expect to be led.

    As for novels, I usually look for a new one by an author I happen to know. That gives me plenty to do – and yet time is left over for doing other things !

    I don’t know what you mean by “don’t much care for books”. There are already enough people caring for books, they make their living by it. I don’t much care for e-books, it’s true.

  22. The ‘canted curve’ sense is pretty current in UK – I’ve certainly heard accidents blamed on adverse camber. The old ‘higher in the middle’ sense still seems to get used a lot, but in more specialised ways, by engineers or boat builders or violinists, and perhaps the same is true of the ‘tire/tyre angling’ sense, which was new to me.

    I thought there might be some connection with the ‘dish’ of traditional wooden wheels (shaped like a flattish limpet, pointed inward, so the top half of the wheel splays out, allowing the the sides of the cart to be wider, while the spokes on the ‘down’ side stay vertical to the road surface, and the strong shape prevents their being pulled apart by the side to side swaying of the horse). But ‘camber’ isn’t in the 12 page glossary in George Sturt’s book ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’, published in 1923 but looking back to an earlier period, and on reflection I can see modern roads and the rutted lanes farm wagons were built for don’t have much in common. All the same I like Sturt’s exact recollection of road surfaces as they used to be:

    It will be well remembered that, in the old days of horse-traction, roads were worn down, crosswise, into a wavework of shallow hollows from one side to the other, about a yard or so apart. This was not very visible in broad day-light, but at night a lantern in a wayfarer’s hand, or the low-hung head lights of a motor-car, would show up the road, as far as the light travelled, corrugated all across with bars of brilliant light and pitchy darkness.

    And one day I saw how this road-surface was produced. A cart cart just before me was gently swaying from side to side with every step of the horse. And as it swayed, the wheels—first the off, then the rear, in fine alternate rhythm—loosened a grain or two of road-metal, ground the channel across the road a grain or two deeper, now at this step, then at that. It was inevitable. As long as horse-drawn vehicles used the road, and horses walked or trotted one step after another from side to side slightly swaying, so long the carts and waggons and carriages behind the horses would gently grate into the road-surface and wear it into those wavy channels.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Collins sez of “road metal”:

    # crushed rock, broken stone, etc, used to construct a road #

    Use peaked around 1910. But in what sense “metal” ? The OED tells me that “mettle” was originally identical with “metal”, in which lemma I find:

    # f.1.f fig. (In 16–17th c. often = the ‘stuff’ of which a man is made, with reference to character: cf. mettle.)

       1552 Latimer Serm. Lord’s Prayer v. (1562) 34 b, What? (say they) they be made of such metall as we be made of.

    The “mettle” of a road is the stuff of which a road is made.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Everything in moderation – I don’t think that was intended to apply to comments with links. But that’s what happens, they all go into moderation.

  25. @AG: It’s plausible. Cummerbund is from Hindi kammerband.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Michael: All the same I like Sturt’s exact recollection of road surfaces as they used to be:

    So do I, so thanks!

    I’ve bothered and bored people watching period dramas around me for a long time by taking the occasion to point out that the two-wheel-track pattern on that carriage road would have been different when it was used by actual horses and carriages. But I never got around to research the subject and find out what it would actually be like.

  27. “Never go to a movie with a cinematographer, because all he will talk about afterwards is how you could see the shadow of the boom in the upper left hand corner throughout scene #27.”

  28. Jonathan D says

    Hmm. For me the general meaning is combined with the “British” one – I previously would have taken camber to mean the curve of the road surface, whether it’s simply higher in the middle on a straight section, or there’s a bank for the curve. I think it was explained to me that way years ago, rather than I’ve just interpreted it that way myself, but in any case, that interpretation has lost the idea that “camber” refers to an arch.

  29. marie-lucie says

    JD: the idea that “camber” refers to an arch.

    … but not to a high one.

  30. Richard Hershberger says

    As a point of information I was taught in drivers ed class in high school (California c. 1980) that the elevated center line on a roadway was “crowned.”

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    It’s a very familiar word to me, too, but (as an Englishman) I’ve never heard it used for corner banking. To me it just means the normal raising of the centre of the road so that the road is slightly convex.

    That has always been what camber means to me. Banking is different.

  32. I learned “camber” in relation to aerofoils, and transferred it easily enough to the cross-section of road surfaces and the fingerboards of stringed instruments. I wonder if the tilted-turn sense is originally a misunderstanding of the word.

    I guess the aviation sense of “bank” (tilting the wings) must come from the idea of a banked turn in a road or racetrack, which in turn presumably comes from building up the ground like a riverbank or similar. OED isn’t helpful on the question.

  33. I think “metalled” as applied to roads reflects the original meaning of metallon as “mine, quarry, metal, what is got by mining,” to quote an online dictionary.

    This meaning seems to be obscure nowadays, though. There’s a passage in Edward Rutherfurd’s Micheneresque doorstop novel Sarum where a lightning bolt hits a lost Roman road and the lightning travels along the road, revealing it, because it was “metalled.” *eyeroll*

  34. I always wondered what “metalled” meant as applied to roads, but never looked into it. The Rutherfurd bit is hilarious.

  35. @Richard Hershberger: your mention of “crowned” in this context reminds me that one of the many deep cultural differences between southern England and northern England is that in the former, the game of lawn bowls (like curling on grass, more or less) is played on a flat surface, whereas in the midlands and north the preferred game is ‘crown green bowls,’ where the playing surface is slightly convex, for added trickery.

  36. Trond: thank you. I too have bothered and bored people watching period dramas around me.

  37. nick keller says

    It’s in Lydia Davis’s Proust translation:

    “Each year, the day we arrived, in order to feel that I was really in Combray, I would go up to find it again where it ran along the furrows and made me run after it. We always had the wind beside us when we went the Méséglise way, over that cambered plain where for leagues it encounters no rise or fall in the land.”

    I’m 90% positive the Modern Library version doesn’t use the word there. As for the French original, maybe someone has it on hand?

  38. Lars (the original one) says

    The mechanics are different, but the more or less common spatial resonance periods of vehicle suspensions still act to amplify small bumps and destroy gravel and tarmac roads much faster than would otherwise be the case. (‘Tarmac’ here in the original sense of tar-sprayed MacAdam pavement, as opposed to blacktop or concrete).

    In climates where you don’t get potholes the first winter because of puddles freezing, I’ve seen regular ripples with a depth of 20-30cm in such roads.

  39. Bathrobe says

    (Late to the party)

    ‘Camber’ is a familiar term to me; I wouldn’t look twice if I encountered ut. But perhaps it’s more familiar to Brits and Australians, etc. than to North Americans.

  40. I’m 90% positive the Modern Library version doesn’t use the word there. As for the French original, maybe someone has it on hand?

    The French reads: “On avait toujours le vent à côté de soi du côté de Méséglise, sur cette plaine bombée où pendant des lieues il ne rencontre aucun accident de terrain.” Two other translations I’ve found are “billowing” and “gently undulating”; I don’t like Davis’s “cambered,” because it irrelevantly implies human shaping, unlike “bombée.”

  41. Funny, I happened to read “Remainder” last week and I didn’t like it either. First, there was – as Wilson called it – the narrator’s selfishness and the whole sollipsistic nonsense, but that I could live with because some bits of what McCarthy was going for were intriguing. The main problem I had was that I found the narrator’s voice familiar and foreboding in a bad way; I kept thinking “This will end up total shit, just like in … damn, what does that remind me of?” And then the whole thing at the end happened and the book just nosedived and that’s when I realized who the narrator reminded me of: the narrator in Jack London’s “The Sea-Wolf” which, incidentally, also turned to utter melodramatic shit in its final pages.

  42. Ha! I never read the London, and now I probably won’t.

  43. London was better at writing canids than hominids.

  44. marie-lucie says

    Davis: We always had the wind beside us when we went the Méséglise way, over that cambered plain where for leagues it encounters no rise or fall in the land.”

    This translation seems to me to give the most accurate description of the plain in question. It strongly reminds me of the approaches to Mortagne-au-Perche, a little town in Southern Normandy where I went to primary school. The main access road is on the top of a bare plain or plateau which gently slopes down on either side, revealing vast landscapes but exposing the road to strong winds which cause dangerous black ice in the winter, as there is nothing, not even trees, to break the force of the bitter winds. The road site, which seems to be quite ancient, is neither “billowing” nor “gently undulating”. Cambered may not have quite the right connotation, but bombée does not sound quite natural either, although it describes a natural feature which is not limited to the road itself.

    If Mortagne were not (I think) quite far from the hypothetical site of Combray, I would assume that its road had been the model for the way to Méséglise.

  45. Thanks, I now appreciate Davis’s version better! Combray started out being near Chartres (like its model Illiers) but wound up being near Reims (if I recall correctly) because Proust wanted it to experience German bombardment in WWI.

  46. Michael Trevor says

    Near the end of a fine interview with Seamus Heaney, Henri Cole asks, ‘How much is form and prosody on your mind when you’re writing, as you begin a poem?’ and Heaney replies:

    It’s hard to be exact about that. Form and prosody aren’t usually on anybody’s mind until after the first line or two. There’s a summons in those first words; they’re like a tuning fork and if things go right the tune of the whole poem will get established and sustained in the opening move or movement. Usually, to tell you the truth, I just follow my ear. If I’m working with pentameters, I do often beat out the line with my fingers – Marie used to tell me to watch the road when she’d see me starting to tap the steering wheel. But early on I tended to go more with the camber and timbre of my voice and didn’t think too much about keeping the accent or being metrically correct. In fact, I intended the thing to be a bit bumpy and more or less avoided correctness of that kind. If anything has happened over the years, it’s that I’ve become more conscious of the rules. I take more care with the tum-ti-tum factor. And I’m not sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopkins was my first love, after all.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    Assuming that “camber” rhymes with “timbre” in Heaney’s variety of English, as it does in mine, it is hard to resist the inference that he was engaged in the common poetic strategy of using the word that rhymes rather than the word that makes sense in context. Indeed, whatever character of Heaney’s own voice he may have meant to indicate by “camber” would seem analogous to the “bombee” in Proust, where (at least on hat’s original assumption before marie-lucie’s contribution) the shape of the landscape was the result of natural processes or at most the cumulative result of human processes not carried out with the conscious intent or achieving that result, whereas “camber” would by contrast imply a shape (whether or voice or of road) deliberately engineered into the resulting state of affairs in order to make the result more useful in some specific, technical way (whether e.g. promoting drainage of rainwater or allowing drivers to take a curve at higher speed w/o skidding off the road). It seems highly unlikely given the context of the passage that Heaney meant “some specific thing I self-consciously do with the ‘shape’ of my voice in order to achieve a desired effect” by “camber.”

  48. Graham Asher says

    “David Marjanović says:
    July 17, 2018 at 7:19 am
    the Celtic root ‘cam’

    More like *kamp-”

    Actually I meant “*kambo-” (crooked); see

  49. David Marjanović says

    So the p in the Kamp has undergone the High German Consonant Shift… that makes one of two -mp- words known to me.

  50. January First-of-May says

    Also, the etymology is interesting

    The implied “Greek kamara, vault” appears to be the etymon of camera and chamber.

    Wiktionary says that Latin camur is a retention of the same PIE root rather than a borrowing (the borrowing, of course, being camera, whence the two English words mentioned above). It does mention the possible Iranian connection of the Greek word, but not definitively.

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