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Mr. Duane told me at the Funeral of our late virtuous and able President1 that he, Mr. Duane, had accustomed him self to read the Year Books. Mr. De Lancey who was C[hief] J[ustice] of N. York he said advised him to it, as the best Method of imbibing the Spirit of the Law. De Lancey told him that he had translated a Pile of Cases from the Year Books, altho he was a very lazy Man.

Duane says that Jefferson is the greatest Rubber off of Dust that he has met with, that he has learned French, Italian, Spanish and wants to learn German.
Duane says, he has no Curiosity at all—not the least Inclination to see a City or a Building &c.

Diary of John Adams, Volume 2, 1775

Does the dust refer to the layer of dust that accumulates on books that nobody reads, i.e dusty volumes? One could be a sweeper or someone who dusts or brushes off something.

But why Rubber off of dust? Does one rub off dust? It is something I cannot get my head around.

  • Mari-Lou, I think your first impression is correct -- Duane is characterizing Jefferson as someone who pulls all sorts of dusty old books down from the shelf to read them. The rest of the passage is about how tedious Duane found such activity. However, Adams's verbal brevity in the second paragraph left some ambiguity as to the antecedent of "he". – Spencer Mar 8 '18 at 10:49
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    @user5768790 post the Ngram link, include a few citations and it's an upvote. Never heard of anyone "rub off dust" before. – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 11:01
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    In those times, dashes were not necessarily de rigueur. What is very comical, is giving this particular word ER status, as if it were like any other er word in English (potter, candle -stick maker) and then capitalizing it as if it had special status. At the time, capitalization was used for certain nouns to confer importance. I agree that rub off dust is slightly odd, but what other verb would you use? A wiper off of dust? I find it charming, a rubber off of dust akin to: a spinner of tales or a marker of passages. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 16:37
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    @Mari-LouS The point is not about alternatives. It is about what the Adams wrote. I am not getting into a pissing contest with the man after hundreds of years. If you pick up a dusty book from a shelf, and rub a finger over the dust, you are in effect rubbing it off, aren't you? Why can't anyone see the humor here? He was not a housemaid to be dusting and wiping stuff off. Come on. So, maybe he's funnier and cleverer than we are. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 18:50
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    @Lambie I think you are the one who's taking it a bit too seriously (wink) – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 19:07
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I think your first impression is correct -- "Rubber off" would be more clearly rendered as Rubber-off.

In this paragraph:

Duane says that Jefferson is the greatest Rubber off of Dust that he has met with, that he has learned French, Italian, Spanish and wants to learn German.

Duane (who I guess is James Duane of the First Continental Congress) is characterizing Thomas Jefferson as someone who pulls all sorts of dusty old books down from the shelf to read them.

When you pull a dusty old book down off a shelf, you are likely to give it at least a cursory cleaning, at least to get the worst of the dust off.

Jefferson is famous as a polymath -- someone who delved into, and mastered, all sorts of subjects. And so it shouldn't surprise anyone that he was a voracious reader. One famous story has Jefferson basing the structure of the Declaration of Independence off of Euclid's Elements.

Now for the following passages:

Duane says, he has no Curiosity at all—not the least Inclination to see a City or a Building &c.

That his Memory fails, is very averse to be burthened. That in his Youth he could remember any Thing. Nothing but what he could learn, but it is very different now.

I've added the sentence after your quote because it underscores that Duane is now talking about himself, in contrast to Jefferson. In his old age(42), Duane has lost the youthful curiosity that Jefferson (32) still possesses.

Whether Duane is simply amazed at Jefferson's energy, or whether he's being scornful of "book larnin'" his statements underscore the idea that dust is being rubbed off of books.

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    Could it be that Duane coined the phrase "a Rubber off {of}"? This might explain why the letter "r" is capitalized, it's a noun (and important nouns were often capitalised in 18th century) or an honorific of sorts. – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 11:43
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    @Mari-Lou That, or it could just be Adams summarizing Duane's attitude. The phrase has an English public school feel to it -- although in this case the "public school" would have been Harvard. – Spencer Mar 8 '18 at 12:03
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    @Fattie the original hand written version is "Jefferson is the greatest Rubber off [possible comma, line break] of Dust [short hand symbol] he had met with" masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/popup?id=D24&page=D24_17 – DavePhD Mar 8 '18 at 16:30
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    @Fattie: Why do you say it must be "rubber-off", with a hyphen? There are plenty of examples of similar phrases (eg "giver up") that are commonly used without a hyphen. Surely both are acceptable? – psmears Mar 8 '18 at 17:10
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    @Fattie this transcript was written in 1775, nouns were often capitalized, and I don't think a hyphen makes that much difference. I already knew it had to be a noun to begin with, there's the indefinite article "a". – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 17:15
7

Rubber off of dust may be taken more than one way. It could mean one who makes an idea or thought seem more attractive as described here.

It is briefly the function of such study to rub off the dust which makes the gold less attractive than the base metal gilt.(The Study of English Literature: Three Essays)

This may be extended to a person who finds a value under the dust, as here.

Then shall we often rub off the dust and rust from what seemed to us but a common token, which as such we had taken and given a thousand times; but which now we shall perceive to be a precious coin,(The Study of Words By Richard Chenevix Trench)

The idea of renewal is here

In short, there is abundant proof, that in our conversation we were yielding to the spirit of the mountain; to the genius of the place; and rubbing off the dust of our studies among the wilds of Eryri.(The Passengers: Containing, The Celtic Annals By John Parker)

and here.

...a Receipt from from Bachop for a paper bundle and four Hogsheads of Porter, which will rub off the dust and brighten my end of the Chain. And I shall hereafter keep it always Clean and bright.(The Papers of Henry Laurens, Oct. 1769)

Given the context in Diary of John Adams, the rubber off of dust probably is the one who finds value under the dust, or, is not allowing dust to cover that which is useful. The contexts suggests Jefferson was not the one to let dust cling to the means of learning (books, etc), but rather the one who learns.

The learning means use of the books, and use means the dust is constantly rubbed from them.

  • A person who rubs dust of a book spine with his finger is obviously not a housemaid and is looking to read even the volumes high up on shelves, the ones that tend to get dusty. Duane is saying he is a bookworm and not a man of action, it would seem. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 19:00
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    @Lambie the bookworm is Jefferson not Duane. – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 19:12
  • @Mari-LouA Yes, I meant Jefferson. This is John Adams writing about what Duane says about Jefferson. I guess no one sees the humor but me. Also, that if you are a man at that time, you might have very well rubbed the dust off the book spine and top with your finger. What about that?? Doesn't that merit some attention? No one else picked up on it. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 19:15
  • @Lambie I think it very possible that , having rubbed the dust off of Duane's words, he may well have not been complementing Jefferson on his learning. – J. Taylor Mar 8 '18 at 20:04
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The 1832 book Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson explains it this way:

He carried with him to Congress in the year 1775 a reputation for great literary acquirements. John Adams, in his diary for that year, thus speaks of him : " Duane says that Jefferson is the greatest rubber-off of dust that he has met with..."

Note that an 1783 dictionary gives the only definition of "rubber" as:

one who rubs, a cloth to rub with

  • the wholly correct answer. – Fattie Mar 8 '18 at 16:15
  • @Fattie Have you ever heard of someone being called a rubber-off of dust, without context would you have even guessed what it meant? Since when does one rub off the dust? – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 '18 at 17:11
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    @Mari-LouA according to an 1833 Bible dictionary, the definition of WIPE is: "gently to rub off dust, damp, &c. from any thing" books.google.com/… – DavePhD Mar 8 '18 at 17:23
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    @Mari-LouA "as the fairest mirror Not often used, will gather dust, to mar Its brightness; so will friendship by neglect Grow dim and doubtful in its heart-reflexion— Then let our frequent counsel be maintain'd! Open and intimate as Truth and Conscience;— For each should be a rubber to the other" books.google.com/… – DavePhD Mar 8 '18 at 18:01
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    @Mari-LouA From 5 January 1751 (The Rambler serialized): "...much delighted with her company, because she gave him opportunities to recollect the studies of his younger years, and, by some mention of ancient story, had made him rub the dust off his Homer, which had lain unregarded in his closet." books.google.com/… – DavePhD Mar 8 '18 at 21:16

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