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Cars are such an integral part of most people’s lives. In addition to getting us to our destination, they give us a sense of freedom and connect us with others — and, for some, contribute to a sense of personal identity. However, have you ever thought about the origins of the word “car?” Why is a car called a “car? For inquiring minds that want to know, we provide the answer.

Where does the word ‘car’ come from?

Vehicles driving on a highway at sunset, highlighting why a car is called a "car"
Traffic on highway | Xan Griffin via Unsplash

When things are so common, it’s easy to take them for granted. This is the case with cars. They’re everywhere — and as a result, basic aspects of them can be overlooked, such as why there are black dots on a windshield. This is likely the reason why few people know why an automobile is called a “car.” It’s such a short and simple word, which is another reason why people might not think about its origins. However, despite the simplicity of the word, it has a long and complex history.

The word “car” comes from the Latin word “carrus” or “carrum,” which means a “wagon with two wheels.” However, the Latin word has Celtic origins, as detailed by Word Detective. Its first use in English was around 1300, arriving indirectly through Anglo-Norman and Old French. 

Initially, the word in English meant a horse-drawn cart or wagon. It’s unknown where “cart” came from, though. It might have come from the Old Norse term “kart” or the Old English word “kartr.” However, the connection between “cart” and “car” is not definitive. 

The word was first used in 1896

1896 Mercedes-Benz "Riemenwagen" Vis-a-Vis at Mercedes-Benz Museum, highlighting where the word "car" comes from
1896 Mercedes-Benz “Riemenwagen” Vis-a-Vis | Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After its initial usage in English around 1300, the word “car” was used for the passenger compartment of various vehicles over the following centuries. This includes the passenger compartment of a balloon, a train carriage, a cableway, and an elevator.

However, it wasn’t until 1896 that the word was used for what we now know as the automobile. Before then, people predominantly called them “horseless carriages.” Now, vintage automobile collectors refer to vehicles of that period as “brass era cars.” This is because of their brass fixtures and trim. 

Also, as detailed by Jalopnik, before settling on the word “car,” there were many other unusual names. This includes automotor horse, truckle, motor carriage, oleo locomotive, motor-vique, motorig, autobaine, buggyaut, autometon, autokenetic, monocle, and diamote.

Additionally, the term “automobile” was in use before the invention of four-wheeled internal combustion engine vehicles. “Automobile,” which combines the word “auto” (self) with “mobile “(moving), was the name for steam-powered vehicles in the 1860s.

It’s also interesting to note that automobiles are simply called “cars” — but for the passenger compartments of other vehicles, a modifier is required, such as a “railway car” or “cable car.” Due to their commonality, automobiles commandeered the word “car.” The name stuck. It’s simple and easy to say. 

What are cars called in other languages?

Related Thinking of a Nickname for Your Car? — Try These Tips

Thinking of a Nickname for Your Car? — Try These Tips

While less common, automobiles also have many other names. Examples include jalopy, vehicle, motorcar, auto, ride, buggy, banger, wheels, machine, and motor vehicle. Of course, there are different types of cars, such as trucks, vans, sedans, hatchbacks, sports cars, SUVs, limousines, buses, convertibles, and EVs. And if you have a strong connection to your vehicle, you can give it a nickname.

Additionally, other languages have different words for car:

  • Spanish: Coche
  • German: Auto
  • French: Auto
  • Italian: Macchina
  • Portuguese: Carro
  • Chinese: Chē (车)
  • Japanese: Kuruma (くるま)
  • Korean: Jadongcha (자동차)
  • Thai: Rót (รถ)
  • Indonesian: Mobil
  • Malay: Kereta
  • Hindi: Gaadee (गाड़ी)
  • Swahili: Gari
  • Arabic: Sayara (سيارة)

Now you know the origins of the word “car.” The next time you’re cruising along in your automobile, you can ponder the complex history of such a simple word. Does it pique your curiosity to find out the word origins of so many other things that we take for granted?