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Dash is one of those words with more meanings than letters. These include to rush (I dashed out), to destroy (my hopes were dashed), and a punctuation mark (em dash etc.). There are also various other meanings but those three are the most commonly used (as far as I know).

I can understand the link between the rapid action (to dash somewhere) and destruction, but am stumped trying to find a link between either and the "—". The online etymology dictionary is not very helpful here:

dash (v.)

c.1300, probably from a Scandinavian source (compare Swedish daska, Danish daske "to beat, strike"), somehow imitative. The oldest sense is that in dash to pieces and dashed hopes. Intransitive meaning "move quickly" appeared c.1300, that of "to write hurriedly" is 1726. Related: Dashed; dashing.

dash (n.)

late 14c., from dash (v.). Sporting sense is from 1881, originally "race run in one heat."

Neither of those touches on the punctuation mark. So, what is the etymology of dash ("-") and how is it connected, if indeed it is, to the other meanings of the word? Any comments on the various other meanings (such as He cut a dashing figure etc.) are also welcome.

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    Also, 'dashing' (as in sharp dresser), what's up with that? – Mitch Oct 9 '14 at 13:35
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    @Mitch "1801, "given to cutting a dash" (1786), which was a colloquial expression for "acting brilliantly," from dash (n.) in the sense of "showy appearance," which is attested from 1715. The sense of "splashing" is recorded from mid-15c." (source). Which admittedly just pushes the question back. – terdon Oct 9 '14 at 13:40
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    Funnily enough, in Danish, daske can mean to slap, but also to walk slowly and uncoordinated, sort of the antonym of the English Dashing – mplungjan Oct 9 '14 at 14:15
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The basic meaning of the verb "dash" is to "strike" violently. A "dash" is a "stroke" of a pen. You can read about it in the relevant entries in the OED.

Here are the references:

  1. A hasty stroke of the pen.

1615 J. Stephens Ess. & Characters (new ed.) 414 And thus by meere chaunce with a little dash I have drawne the picture of a Pigmey.

a1656 Bp. J. Hall Shaking of Olive-tree (1660) ii. 310 With one dash to blot it out of the holy Calender.

1691 J. Ray Wisdom of God 20 That this was done by the temerarious dashes of an unguided Pen.

1803 J. Mackintosh Def. Peltier in Wks. (1846) III. 246 Fifty Imperial towns have been erased from the list of independent states, by one dash of the pen.

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    One dash of the pen seems obvious in retrospect. Thanks! – terdon Oct 9 '14 at 15:13
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see Dashboard - a board of leather or wood emplaced so as to prevent mud and debris from being flung from a horse's hooves onto the driver of a cart ("dashed up."). Such debris would hit the protective board with some force (Dashing). Is it possible that moving fast (as in "dashing through the snow") came synonymously from the repetitive "dashing" of debris against the dash-board when moving at speed?

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    Looking here, dashboard was first used in 1832. "Dash" (verb) meaning bespatter attested from 1530 according to OED (noun came a little later). The earliest citation for "dash" (noun) meaning "rush" is from 1300. So I'd say your guess is wrong. – Laurel Dec 4 '17 at 4:42

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