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The rise of the automobile in America in the 1890s gave birth to an exciting new vocabulary of words and phrases. Like the machines that spawned them, much of this vehicle vernacular was then exported around the world, where it aged as timelessly as Paul Newman.
There are, of course, many Anglo-American nuances in the language we use when we discuss car-related matters: “trunk” instead of “boot,” “gas” as opposed to “petrol,” and the sexy sounding “hood” rather than the awfully British “bonnet” are three of the most obvious examples. However, much of the automobile argot we use today isn’t specific to the actual manufacturing of cars, but is a product of the American culture and lifestyle that evolved around this new industry.
The drive-in, for example, was the 1920s brainchild of a Texan entrepreneur named Jessie G. Kirby who observed, “People with cars are so lazy they don’t want to get out of them to eat!” So in September 1921, Kirby opened America’s first drive-in restaurant, the Pig Stand, along the stretch of highway connecting Dallas with Fort Worth. The establishment was an instant hit and the phrase “drive-in” was born.
One of the oldest auto-expressions we use today even pre-dates cars. Everybody knows that if you call “Shotgun!” then you get to sit in the front seat, but this saying’s roots lie in the American Wild West. In those days it was necessary for all stagecoach drivers to have an armed guard ride next to them. It was the guard’s job to ward off any potential threat to the wagon’s cargo and driver—hungry bears, mischievous wolves, naughty outlaws—and he would do this by popping off a few rounds with his shotgun.
The earliest models of cars were so slow that it was possible for passersby to step onto the running board and get a free ride (whether the driver consented or not). These hangers-on became known as hitchhikers—literally a hiker hitching himself to a car. The word was coined in America sometime in the mid-1920s, but the act of doing it didn’t become widespread until the 1930s when the onset of the Great Depression (in particular the Dust Bowl) forced many people to leave their homes in search of work.
The introduction of cars to the city streets of America in the 1920s meant that pedestrians now had to use caution when crossing the road. The term “jaywalking” was first used by the Chicago Tribune in 1909 when it stated, “Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their joyriding (also coined in 1909) would harm nobody if there were not so much jaywalking.”
In those days the word “jay” was a popular derogatory term used to describe a village idiot or country bumpkin. Thus “jaywalking” was to cross the street in a foolish, ill-advised fashion. This Americanism isn’t used in Britain because it’s pretty much legal to cross the street wherever and whenever you like in the U.K.—motorways being the only exception.
Although the concept of ride-sharing had already existed for many years, the term “carpooling” didn’t enter the language until sometime in the early 1940s. A government initiative launched during the Second World War encouraged people to “carpool” as a means of conserving resources (oil and fuel) for the war effort. A famous propaganda poster warned American drivers, “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!”
In the post-war boom carpooling suffered at the hands of prosperity, but it would return again in the 1970s due to the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. It was during this period that carpool lanes began to be built across America to further encourage the initiative.
When cars became affordable to the working class in the 1960s, U.S. cities became hives of automobile activity. One consequence of this was congestion, and in the 1970s a term was coined to describe traffic at a standstill. “Gridlock” was dreamed up by Sam Schwartz, the chief engineer of the New York City Department of Transportation, who titled an internal memo addressing the problem: “Gridlock Prevention Plan.” Gridlock is in fact only technically possible in cities that have a street grid system, as it defines a situation where vehicles block intersections and therefore prevent the flow of traffic. The phrase is often incorrectly used to describe a traffic jam, which only refers to queuing vehicles.
One highly recommended and uniquely American experience is the “tailgate party”—the practice of eating and drinking in the parking lot before a big event. Those partaking are said to be “tailgating.” However, if you see a sign on a freeway saying “No Tailgating,” you are not being told to put down your hamburger and Bud Light, but are being instructed not to drive too close to the vehicle in front of you. Because if you do drive too close to the vehicle in front you might have a “fender bender”—the fantastic U.S. phrase for a minor collision.
While all these phrases are still in use today, many words were not so fortunate. Before “car” and “automobile” were settled on, for example, other nouns were tried on for size. “Autobat,” “motor buggy” and “horseless carriage” are just three of countless others that didn’t catch on. But perhaps the greatest loss to language was the death of the rather fabulous expression “autobubbling,” an Americanism coined in 1900 to describe a leisurely drive.
What’s your favorite U.S. driving slang? Tell us below:
View all posts by Jon Langford.