A modest proposal for a future word that means ‘self-driving vehicle’

speed-limit-auto
A horseless carriage (1901 Kidder Steam Wagon by the Kidder Motor Vehicle Co. in New Haven, Conn.) from the New England Historical Society.

 

One thing I often say to visitors to the contemporary museum where I work is that when they look at something they don’t quite understand their brains will try to make meaning out of the new or strange thing by equating it to things they already know. That is, the experience of something new is filtered by the past: we are always moving forward with our eyes on history.

I recently heard or read something (maybe it was a podcast?) that said language works in a similar way: a new thing is named by its relationship to the past. Thus, we didn’t have “cars” at first, we had “horseless carriages.”

The podcasters were bringing this up in relationship to the clumsy name we now have for the latest vehicular technology: the self-driving vehicle. I have a name for it: automobile, which is a combination of the Greek for “self,” and the Latin for “movable.”

Yes, of course, I know people call their Priuses (Priuii?) and SUVs and Beamers “automobiles,” but I’d argue that the term has been wrong all long. None of those vehicles drove themselves. They all required an operator, or a driver, which is also an interesting word. And the act of driving, of course, is what makes a term “self-driving” necessary, because we understand “automobile” to mean a vehicle that is driven (though that isn’t literally what it means).

This kind of word repurposing is nothing new. The word “car” itself is quite old, from the fourteenth century, referring to vehicles with wheels in Latin (carrus), and also thought to be related to a similar word “carriage,” which just means to carry and is said to be from the twelfth century.

Anyway, this is just to say that it doesn’t seem unlikely that soon-ishly (maybe in twenty years) English speakers will finally be using the “automobile” correctly, in reference to self-driving vehicles.

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