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Naming Cars: The Etymology of Automobiles

On March 21, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta will begin a three month exhibition about car design in the context of various art movements throughout the last century. The Allure of the Automobile will feature some of the rarest cars from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. In reference to the upcoming exhibit, we chose to explore several aspects of the language involved in creating automobiles.

There is a world of etymology tucked away in the familiar, everyday world of cars. The word automobile comes to us from the French via Greek and Latin: autós mobilis, or, moveable self. Every vehicle that you see on the road has a carefully chosen make and model name, and while some obviously hearken to the speed, power, or prowess of the vehicle, others have slightly more esoteric stories. The structures of the cars, too, have etymological histories. For example, a sedan was originally an enclosed means of travel, carried on two wooden rods by pole bearers in the 17th and 18th centuries. A coupe was a closed, four-wheeled carriage with a single seat for passengers and an outside seat for the driver, and its etymology comes from the early-19th century and the French verb couper, meaning “to cut.” This carriage was shorter than others of the time, and so was termed “cut off” at the end.

Japanese car manufacturers tend toward names that reflect global concepts, like the Honda Accord, which, as the company stated, reflects Honda’s “desire for accord and harmony between people, society, and the automobile.” The Toyota Scion gets its name from the word meaning “heir” or “offspring,” stemming from the Old French cion and Old German chinan, meaning “to sprout.” The significance fits, considering that the Scion was Toyota’s line of cars meant to appeal to the younger generation of drivers.

American car manufacturers like Ford and Chrysler (no etymologies to be found here – these vehicles were introduced by Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler) tend to name different models by the reputation they wish to build for each vehicle. The Ford Taurus, Ford Ranger, and Ford Explorer all provide a connotation of strength and intrepidness, akin to the American spirit. The Ford Focus gets its name from its compact size – thus, rather than being small, it is “focused” in size.

Thanks to Dave Wilton from Word Origins for pointing out that our Jeep etymology was wrong. His article on the subject reveals that Jeep most likely comes from a prewar comic strip, Thimble Theater, which also gave us Popeye! Here is a line from his article, and a link:

The most likely explanation is that it came from Eugene the Jeep, a strange creature that appeared in E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theater, best known for its character Popeye, the Sailor. Eugene the Jeep first appeared in March 1936 and was named for the only sound he made “jeep,” which was apparently a play on “cheep” used by cartoonists to represent a bird’s call. on Jeep

The importance of an aptly-chosen name led to the perpetuation of the urban legend regarding the Chevy Nova: It was said that the car sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries due to the name Nova, which in Spanish can be looked at as no va – “it doesn’t go.” Of course, like most urban myths, this one has been busted. The Nova did fine in Spanish speaking countries when it was in production. If you’re interested in the subject of linguistic myth-busting, check out Dave Wilton’s book, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends.

Photo by Michael Layefsky

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