The Interesting History of the Words “Car” and “Automobile”

It isn’t often that we stop and wonder why common objects took on a certain name. Around the world, we recognize the four-wheel, motorized vehicles we use for transit as cars and automobiles, but have you ever paused to wonder where the names originated and who picked them out?

The word “automobile”

The word automobile is pretty common, and it looks pretty self-explanatory, but there is some history to the word that most people don’t know. Like many other words, automobile was a word that originated from other languages. The first part, ‘auto’ was taken from the Greek word autos, referring to self. The second part, ‘mobile,’ seems pretty obvious, but it came from the French word mobile, which roughly meant moving. Together, automobiles stood for self-moving vehicles, not requiring an animal like a horse or ox to move.

1956 Ford Fairlane
J.D. Tone and his 1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria in Fountain Valley. In 2011 Tone found a restored ’56 Victoria for sale online in Arizona. It was not show-perfect and had Peacock Blue/Colonial White two-tone paint instead of black, but it suited Tone just fine | Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register, Getty Images

How “car” came to be

So what about the word car? In today’s modern industry, the word car is just as common as the word automobile, but it doesn’t sound anything like the latter. ‘Car’ doesn’t share the same European history that the word automobile does; instead, it was taken from the Celtic word carrus, which referred to a cart or wagon.

The 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spyder with covered headlights, considered lost, once owned by Alain Delon was auctioned for €14 million | John van Hasselt/Corbis, Getty Images

The history of cars

Whether you refer to them as cars or automobiles, it’s interesting to think back on the history of the words themselves and to remember how far vehicles and transportation have evolved over the past 100 years. Today, we have the world’s fastest cars, which beat speeds engineers a century ago probably thought was impossible. If you simply look at your car as a mode of transportation, you might forget the amazing heritage of cars and the automotive industry altogether.

The red Sbarro Super Eight by a green hedge
Sbarro Super Eight | Speed 8 Classics

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Automobiles are an incredible part of our history, and it is impossible to remember a time when cars weren’t around to make our lives easier. No matter what type of vehicle you drive, reflecting back on the history of one of the biggest changes in our everyday lives is still pretty cool.