To “rubberneck,” as a verb, means to look about or stare with exaggerated curiosity, craning one’s neck so as to get a better view. As a noun, “rubberneck” has been described as a human trait that is associated with morbid curiosity.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists rubberneck as a US slang noun, though more often the noun form is rendered as rubbernecker. The idea is that the person twists, turns and bends his neck about in a manner that resembles the properties of rubber.

The term “rubbernecking” was coined in America in the 1890s to refer to tourists. HL Mencken said the word is “almost a complete treatise on American psychology” and “one of the best words ever coined.” By 1909 “rubbernecking” was used to describe the tours around American cities.

One writer described the “out-of-towners” stretching their necks to see New York while having misinformation shouted at them, and artist John Sloan depicted them as geese in a 1917 etching called Seeing New York. The rubbernecking tours were also known as “gape wagons” or “yap wagons.”

Most Europeans are surrounded by visible reminders of man’s past presence in their environment — sometimes going back thousands of years. They are therefore less likely to treat an old building with the same interest as an American new to travel, who has likely not seen any structure older than a couple of hundred years at home. But I’m sure that European visitors to different areas do as much rubbernecking as anyone.

The term is often used to refer to the activity of motorists slowing down in order to see something on the other side of a road or highway, often the scene of a traffic accident. This is sometimes also called “accident gawking.” But the safest course when there are flashing lights and an accident is to keep moving, otherwise you may cause an accident yourself.

Rubberneck is a successful album by the post-grunge band Toadies, released in 1994.

I know of a rock ‘n roll band called Rubber Biscuit. I’ll bet it stretches to jazz, too.

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