Dear Word Detective: Recently, while reading an issue of the British magazine The Economist (actually they call themselves a newspaper, but I suppose that’s a British usage), I came across the following sentence: “Tesla, a maker of electric sports-cars, has developed a saloon, the Model S, which is expected to sell for around $50,000.” Assuming this isn’t some sort of party bus or bar on wheels, does this type of saloon have any relation to the watering holes of the Old West? — Phil Fernandez.
They call themselves a newspaper? That is … odd. Most of the newspapers I know seem to have taken to calling themselves “blogs.” Given the current journalistic hand-wringing over the parlous state of newsprint, a magazine calling itself a newspaper seems as ill-advised as an Airedale dressing up as a ten-point buck in late October.
Speaking of “a bar on wheels,” a few months ago the New York Times reported the possible abolition of the “bar cars” on the Metro-North commuter trains running out of Grand Central terminal in Manhattan. The “bar car” is exactly what it sounds like, an entire train car set up as a rolling tavern. I’m sure this next clause will curl the hair of social scientists, but I spent many happy hours as a child wedged into a corner of the bar car, sipping ginger ale while my parents schmoozed with their friends on the 5:11 local to Old Greenwich.
“Saloon” as a type of automobile and the “saloon” seen in Westerns are, in fact, the same word, although there is a vast aesthetic and social gulf between sleek “saloon” cars and the cavernous dives so often the scenes of chaotic brawls seen in the movies. Furthermore, this “saloon” is essentially the same word as “salon,” which is used to mean everything from a refined and snooty gathering of artists to that place in the strip mall where your cousin gets her nails done.
In the beginning was the French word “salon,” which meant “large room,” especially one used as a reception room in a palace or large house. “Salon” was imported into English in the late 17th century with the same meaning, but subsequently acquired several derivative uses, including “a gathering of artists and intellectuals” (patterned on “the Salon,” an annual exhibition in one of the “salons” of the Louvre in Paris), as well as “a business offering beauty treatments or hairdressing.”
“Saloon” arose in the 18th century simply as a variant of “salon,” and in its early history it was used in all the same senses. In the 19th century, however, “saloon” started to be used to mean “a large, open compartment” on a passenger ship or railway train, such as a lounge for first-class passengers aboard ship or a “dining saloon” railway car. It was also during the 19th century that the term “saloon” started to be applied, almost exclusively in the US, to public bars. The exception was the British use of “saloon bar,” which meant a semi-private bar, a bit more upscale than the “pub” (short for “public house”) to which it was often attached (but less exclusive than the “private bar” sometimes found on the same premises).
This aura of modest exclusivity carried by the term “saloon” (at least east of Wyoming), as well as its connotation of “roomy,” led to its application in the early 20th century to a type of motor car with a completely enclosed passenger compartment capable of seating at least four people. A “saloon,” therefore, falls between a sporty model or compact car and a larger vehicle such as a limousine or today’s SUV hybrids. If it sounds like I’m also describing a “sedan,” it’s because I am. Apparently what we call a “sedan” here in the US has historically been known as a “saloon” in the UK, although the word “sedan” is gaining ground fast, which was probably inevitable. Pretty soon we’ll have all those sleepy little pubs re-branded as “saloons” and the patrons will be smashing chairs over each others’ heads just like real American cowboys.