Turtle Hull

It’s a ninja thing.

Dear Word Detective: I just discovered your articles online, and was pleased to find an explanation of the term “calf rope” (which I recently introduced to my youngest child), and also see that you at least reference the word “tump.” I grew up using both words regularly in southern Arkansas. This reminded me of another term that I’ve heard my parents use a good bit when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, but never really understood the meaning. My parents would often refer to the trunk of a car as the “turtle hull.” I’ve found references online defining the term as the trunk of a car, but no explanation of how/when the term quit referring to an actual turtle, and instead to a portion of a car. Any ideas? — Greg Harrison.

It’s always nice to be discovered, and in this case your discovery produced my discovery that I have columns online (from, respectively, 2003 and 1999) that I have absolutely no memory of writing. “Calf rope” is, I remember now, a regional “surrender term” used by children in the southern US to signal that they are giving up in a fight, much as saying “uncle” has been used for centuries. I apparently came up blank back in 1999 on “tump” meaning “overturn,” as in “tump over a boat.” But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, I now notice, that it’s a US dialectical term meaning “to strike a person roughly” or “to knock down or over roughly” (“I wuz gonna take a big drank of muh Arro Cee Cola until you came by and tumped it over,” Dallas Morning News, 1983), which certainly sounds like the “tump” I was looking for. The OED suggests that this “tump” arose simply as a dialectical pronunciation of “thump.”

“Turtle hull” is a new one on me, but there seem to be a lot of people asking about it online, and there is broad agreement that it’s a slightly antiquated term for the trunk of a car, again used primarily in the southern US. The cargo compartment of a passenger automobile has gone by a range of monikers over the years. In the UK, it’s generally called the “boot,” after platforms on the side of horse-drawn carriages where guards sat (and under which luggage was carried). It’s not clear exactly how “boot” connects to that “platform” sense, but it may be based on the sense of “boot” as a protective container. Back in the 18th century, the main luggage compartment was also known as the “well.” The US term “trunk” is actually relatively recent, dating back to the 1930s. This “trunk” is based on “trunk” in the sense of “chest, box or case” (as in “steamer trunk”), a use that arose because the first “trunks” were made (supposedly) from actual tree trunks. My back hurts just thinking about that.

I have yet to find a dictionary that lists “turtle-hull,” but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does have an entry for “turtle-back” meaning “a rounded projecting boot on a motor vehicle,” which first appeared in print in 1941. This use was by analogy to an arched structure called a “turtle-back” (or “turtle-deck”) sometimes mounted on the bow and/or stern of 19th century steamships to protect against heavy seas. Modern lifeboats on large ships often have this sort of arched canopy fore and aft (or are entirely enclosed by one) to protect passengers and prevent the craft from swamping in a storm. This seafaring “turtle-back” takes its name from its resemblance to the arched shell of a turtle, and the rounded trunks of mid-20th century cars apparently also evoked comparison to our pokey reptilian pals.

The substitution of “hull” for “back” in “turtle-hull” seems a little odd, but not really mysterious. This is “hull” in the sense of “hard outer covering of a seed,” or (given the nautical origin of “turtle-back”) “hull” in the sense of “body of a ship” (which is almost certainly based on the “seed casing” sense of “hull” anyway).

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