Taxi Talk and Limo Lingo

By Rob Kyff

December 18, 2013 3 min read

Many of us enjoy visiting New York City for the holidays. So, for the bridge and tunnel crowd, here's an etymological guide to getting around the city.

If you're driving to town, you're likely to take a parkway. The first parkways, which appeared during the late 1880s, were so named because they

provided carriage travelers with pleasing contours and vistas like those in a park.

Arriving in the city, you'll start searching for a (very expensive!) "parking lot." Surprisingly, this very urban term is related to the pastoral parks that inspired parkways.

"Park" originally referred to an enclosed piece of land stocked with game, and soon "park" came to mean any land used for a specific purpose, e.g., recreation (ballpark), businesses (office park) and, yes, car park.

Once you've parked, you might take a bus or cab. One form of "omnis," the Latin word for "everything," is "omnibus." So when a large carriage toting many people first appeared, it was called an "omnibus" because it carried everyone. Soon "omnibus" was shortened to "bus."

"Taxi cab" is short for "taximeter cabriolet." "Taximeter," which derives from the Latin "taxare" (to assess), originally referred to a device used to calculate the fare in horse-drawn vehicles.

"Cabriolet" is a French word for a light carriage. It was so called because its bouncy ride over rough roads reminded someone of the capering of a young goat, "cabri" in French. I kid you not!

And, if you're really lucky, you'll get to take a chauffeured limousine. (Has there ever been an unchauffeured limousine? Hmm . . . )

Once you know the origin of "chauffeur," you might wish there were. Following the French Revolution, a band of plunderers who went around torching landed estates was led by Jean l'Ecorcheur ("Jack the Scorcher"). L'Ecorcheur's followers became known as "ecorheurs" and eventually "chauffers."

So when steamships and locomotives arrived on the scene, the English version of the word — "chauffeur" — was used to denote the men who stoked the engines with wood and coal. And when automobiles emerged, the mechanics who tended them were also called "chauffeurs," which eventually came to denote paid drivers.

Meanwhile, a cloak made in the Limousin region of France was called a "limousine." So, when a motorcar with an enclosed or "cloaked" driver's seat was introduced around 1900, it was called a "limousine."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254

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