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shameless pleading






The tiger in my tank is very tired.

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know why, but the word “car” popped into my head the other day. I’ve lived with it all my life and always taken it for granted. But it’s an odd word, probably short for “carriage” from the original “horseless carriage” name given to the vehicle? Or perhaps from “cart” or “cartage”? Or is it related to “caravan”? How and when (and who) decided to give the vehicle the name “car’? And when did “automobile” (the name) come along? — Barney Johnson.

Good question. Speaking of cars, I grew up reading Tom Swift Jr. books, and I was recently reminded of Tom’s fabulous inventions (“Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane,” etc.) by the saga of Elon Musk’s newfangled Tesla electric car. I doubt that Victor Appleton (the “house pseudonym” of the Tom Swift writers) could ever have anticipated the high-octane ruckus that greeted a New York Times’ reporter’s test of the Tesla’s mileage. It was a story that would have necessitated a title like “Tom Swift Jr and the Electric Car that Pooped Out Halfway to Boston,” followed by “Tom Swift Jr and the Public Relations Slugfest.” Mr. Musk is now developing spaceships, which hopefully will come with really long extension cords.

“Car” is actually a very old word, first appearing in English around 1300. The root of “car” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning a two-wheeled wagon, but the Latin word itself has Celtic roots, and “car” arrived in English by a roundabout route through Old French and Anglo-Norman.  In English, “car” was first used to mean a horse-drawn cart or wagon. The origin of “cart” is, incidentally, a bit unclear. Old English had the word “craet,” meaning “cart,” but there’s some evidence that the Old Norse “kartr” might be the source. Any connection between “cart” and “car” is fairly remote.

Over the next few centuries, “car” was also used to mean the passenger compartment of a balloon, the gondola of a cableway (i.e., a “cable car”), an elevator “car,” and a railway carriage (“carriage” is from the same “carrus” source, as is our verb “to carry”). It wasn’t until 1896 that “car” was first used for what we now also call an “automobile” (“The latter drove with a daring which may have been dangerous to himself, but which never affected his car.”). This is now the usual sense of “car,” and almost every other use requires a clarifying modifier (“railway car,” etc.).

“Caravan” certainly looks and seems as though it should have some connection to “car,” given that a group of people driving together in a number of cars is commonly called a “caravan.” But the root of “caravan” is the Persian word “karwan,” which entered English in the 16th century in the form “carouan.” In English, the word was initially used in reference to the “caravans” of the Middle East, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A company of merchants, pilgrims, or others, in the East or northern Africa, traveling together for the sake of security, especially through the desert.” Later usage applied “caravan” to a fleet of ships as well as, in the American West, what we would call a “wagon train.” By the late 17th century, “caravan” was applied to covered wagons themselves (especially the sort used by traveling carnivals and Gypsies in Europe), and eventually to the small trailers we call mobile homes. Today what we call “trailer parks” in the US are known in Britain as “caravan parks.”

Incidentally, the first generation of automobiles were indeed popularly called “horseless carriages,” but are referred to by collectors today as “brass era cars” from the brass commonly used in their trim and fixtures. “Automobiles” actually predate internal combustion cars. The term (from “auto,” self, plus “mobile,” moving) was first applied to steam-powered vehicles in the 1860s. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, is credited with producing a small steam-powered cart in 1769 and thus arguably inventing the “automobile.” The term was used in the late 19th century for a variety of self-propelled vehicles driven by steam, compressed air, and electric motors.

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