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Surprising Origins of Car Terms & Car Jargon

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Spoiler Alert: The Surprising Origins of Quirky Car Terms

By Safelite // Mar 12, 2018

From horse drawn carriages to modern day machines, road transportation has a rich history. So it’s no surprise that auto terminology has undergone its own evolution throughout the years. Although our car vocab has changed as technology advances, much of the jargon we still use today harkens back to the days of buggies and the Model T.

So if you’ve ever wondered why engines are measured in horsepower—or what a spoiler actually spoils—you’ve come to the right place. Buckle up, word nerds and motor heads. We’re about to go on a wild ride through vehicular vernacular.

“Glove compartment”

It seems like an odd name for a cubby that probably houses your owner’s manual, CDs from 2004, and packets of fast food ketchup...with no gloves in sight. So it makes sense that the origins of this term come from a very different time.

As it turns out, early steering wheels were made of materials like metal and wood that became too hot to handle in summer...and too cold to hold in winter. Cars also didn’t have roofs or climate control systems yet, so drivers wore gloves to protect their hands from the elements.

Packard is credited as being the first automaker to install special boxes for storing gloves, and the “glove box” was born. The name may be a little dated, but we don’t foresee “napkin nook” catching on anytime soon.

“Bluetooth®”

We have lots to thank Bluetooth® for, including revolutionizing our in-car jam sessions by allowing us to connect our smart phones to our car stereos. But where does this colorful term come from—and what do teeth have to do with tech?

Believe it or not, the tool was named for Danish Viking King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormson. Gormson was known for his strong communication skills and ability to unite people—including merging Denmark and Norway into a single territory. The King was also famous for his dead tooth, which was—you guessed it—a bluish hue.

The name was intended to be temporary, but like a piece of popcorn in a blue tooth, it stuck. So the next time you rock a pair of wireless headphones, think of the king with the gift of gab and a knockout smile.

“Spoiler”

First featured on Ferraris in the 1960s, spoilers now grace the backs (and sometimes fronts) of racecars, sports cars and plenty of passenger vehicles. But these flashy features aren’t just for show. Besides adding sporty style and flair, they also increase vehicle efficiency.

These “wings” (as they’re also called, since they function like upside down airplane wings) increase gas mileage and a car’s grip on the road by redirecting wind currents—thereby reducing vehicle turbulence.

So why the name spoiler? Because the component literally “spoils” the airflow coming over the vehicle, reducing drag and improving fuel efficiency.

“Horsepower”

Still popular today, this expression was originally created as more of a marketing campaign than a scientific measurement. Back in the day, humans relied on horses for everything from farm work to transportation. That is until the steam engine was invented in 1712 as a more efficient means of powering machinery. 

After engineer James Watts patented a new and improved engine in 1769, he knew he needed a unique way to market it. Watts made some rough calculations and came up with “horsepower” as an easy-to-understand comparison—if an engine was “10 horsepower,” it could, in theory, do the work of 10 horses.

Though Watts’ calculations turned out to be incorrect, the steam engine still made him lots of hay, and the term “horsepower” took off like a stallion at Churchill Downs.

“Dashboard”

Speaking of horses, here’s another phrase that takes us back to the days when “hoofing it” literally meant, “hoofing it.” Before paved roads, horse drawn carriages galloped through the dirt, which predictably turned to mud on rainy days. As a result, horses would kick sludge onto the unfortunate passengers riding behind them.

In an effort to curb this muddy mess, buggy builders began installing special horizontal boards on the fronts of carriages to keep passengers clean. And since the worst splattering happened while horses were at a full “dash,” the “dashboard” was born.

From a Viking king with a unique facial feature, to the mucky days of horse drawn carriages, now you know the stories behind some of the quirkiest auto terms. Get ready to show off your newfound skills as a car lingo connoisseur at your next trivia night!

 
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