A British Hitchhiker’s Guide to Understanding America’s Driving Lingo

The 1908 Cadillac. (Photo: AP)

The 1908 Cadillac. (Photo: AP)

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:

See more:
Getting to Grips with America’s Grid System
10 Things for Brits to Know Before Hitting the U.S. Roadways
12 Essential Websites for British Expats in America

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Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
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  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    My kids say “shotgun” all the time and have no idea what it used to mean. Very cool really.

    • MontanaRed

      Well, not to sound smug I made sure my kids knew whence came the term. As far as I can tell from reading history and historically based novels, it was not uncommon in past centuries for carriages in Britain, both public and private, to have an armed man on the box next to the driver to deal with any attacks by highwaymen. Though he wasn’t carrying a shotgun, of course.

      • MontanaRed

        Okay… Apologies for not recognizing how my cutesy punctuation would be interpreted by html. Oops.

  • MontanaRed

    The only true instance of “gridlock” I have ever experienced was in Mexico City many years ago. I grasped instantly the meaning of the word when cars crossing through an intersection ended up in a basket weave pattern, which meant that not one of them could move either forwards or backwards. At some point, the cars on the perimeter of the problem realized what was happening and slowly began maneuvering themselves out of the mess. Eventually those at the epicenter were able to do the same. I remember thinking at the time (as a teenager) it was an amazingly dumb situation for the drivers to voluntarily (they did! I swear!) get themselves into and a great waste of time.

    • Aaron Davis

      I experienced it in New New York.

  • Merica

    Not to be picky, but she didn’t mention the fact that “tailgating” implies that people are sitting on the tailgates of their trucks. If that wasn’t obvious to anyone else….

  • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

    What about describing distance in terms of time? “Oh, that’s about an hour away,” “We’re 30 minutes from there,” “The nearest one is three hours.”

  • Aaron Davis