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Talk the Talk: English Speech Is Within Your Reach

This week: "Here in my car, I feel safest of all."
by Victor Greeson

Though the importance of automobiles to individual Americans may depend on where they live, there is no question that the automobile has a special place in the American soul. Or maybe the American soul has a special place - riding in a car. So it's no surprise that there is a huge vocabulary for talking about cars, and thousands of idioms, proverbs, and slang terms that use automotive imagery. This week, we'll look at some of these.

If any word or phrase below is unfamiliar to you, just click it.

Bonnie and Clyde are taking a road trip down Route 66 and are hanging out in front of a motel near a drive-thru hamburger stand.

Bonnie: Look, there's an old drive-in movie!
Clyde: Wow, what an antique...
Bonnie: Hey - we should fill up the boat before we jet. We were running on fumes when we pulled over.
Clyde: That car's a lemon! And an oil-burner, too.
Bonnie: Too late to worry about that - we need to hit the road, and we'd better burn rubber if we want to make it in time.
Clyde: We'll have to watch out! There's a speed trap up ahead, just past the truck stop. We don't need another ticket.
Bonnie: ...especially now that we have to fix the ding where that biker who was tailgating us on the freeway rear-ended the car.
Clyde: Yeah - thank God it was only a fender-bender. Too bad about his hog!
Bonnie: I couldn't care less about his scooter!
Clyde: Ok, let's cruise. I've got shotgun!

A road trip is a long car trip, over long distances, and is usually treated as a sort of adventure. Someone on a road trip is on the road - a nearly spiritual concept, and the title of a well-known novel by Jack Kerouac about a road trip. Closely related is the concept of the open road - the empty highway, which seems to go on forever...

Route 66 is a historic highway, which has generally been replaced by other, newer roads. People are very sentimental about Route 66, which is the subject of songs, movies, and has it's own website: Route66.com It runs from Chicago to Los Angles, through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It stands as a symbol of the open road, and of the mysteries of cross-country travel.

Hanging out, (or hanging around, or even just hangin') means spending time somewhere with no particular purpose, or no obvious reason to be there. It usually implies being relaxed and having no goal.

Motel is a contraction of "motor hotel", and refers to a hotel designed for those travelling by car. In reality, there is no precise difference between hotels and motels, but if a hotel calls itself a "motel", you can usually expect that you can drive right up to the door to your room, and that most of your fellow guests are on road trips, just like you! The "motel" concept is basically left over from the days when Americans first became truly excited about driving, especially long, cross-country drives of hundreds, or even thousands, of miles.

Drive-thru is incorrectly spelled - technically, it should be "drive-through" - but, misspelled or not, it is very commonly-seen phrase, indicating a restaurant or other service where you literally drive up to a window. This way, you not only don't have to leave your car - you don't even have to stop your engine! This sort of service is generally believed to have originated in California, though this is hard to prove. Like the "motel" and the "drive-thru", the drive-in is a relic from the golden age of driving, following World War Two. At a drive-in movie, customers would drive their cars into a large parking lot, and watch a film, which was projected onto a large white wall, from the comfort of their cars. This should give you an idea of how deeply in love Americans were with their cars at that time.

In the U.S., the standards for considering something an antique, or a classic are pretty low, and often you will hear people call something "an antique", simply because it is older than they are.

To fill up, or fill her up means to pump a tank-full of gas into a car. Cars, and most other vehicles, are often affectionately spoken of as "she".

There are many terms other than auto and car used to refer to automobiles - such as ride, or wheels. There are even more insulting terms for cars. Junker, wreck, and heap all refer to a worn-out car, or one that's not running well. A lemon is usually specifically a car that wasn't made well in the first place. An oil burner is a car that's consuming oil at an unusual rate, probably due to a leak. A boat is a big, wide, heavy, older American car, usually dating back to the days when all American cars were big, wide, and heavy. A roller skate, on the other hand is a very small car. Both terms are playfully insulting, though "boat" is probably more affectionate.

Blow, split, take off, cruise, jet, and hit the road all mean the same thing: to leave. Cruise can also mean to drive around slowly and aimlessly - something like hanging out while moving. Cruising can also mean to be looking for a date, or the equivalent.

If your car is nearly out of gas, and especially if the gas gauge reads "Empty", but you are still driving, then you're running on fumes, or running on empty. As a metaphor, running on empty can mean to continue to work or struggle long after one has lost all energy or drive to continue.

When you move your car to the side of the road, you are pulling over.

Burn rubber, put the pedal to the metal, and gun it all mean roughly the same thing: to drive very fast, or to accelerate rapidly.

To accomplish a goal or to reach a destination, is to make it. Sometimes, someone who has been very successful in life is said to have made it, or to have it made.

Driving over the legal speed limit is called speeding. Sometimes, the police or sherrifs will use a particularly good position along the roadside to wait for speeders. An example would be a very fast road that passes through a small town, so that the posted speed limit suddenly goes down. Many drivers won't slow down quickly enough to avoid going over the new speed limit. A situation like this is called a speed trap. If you are caught speeding through a speed trap, you might get a speeding ticket. Here, the word "ticket" means a citation from the police for violating traffic laws. (Now, you might want to know some insulting terms for the police - but that would take an entire column!)

A truck stop is a roadside business that serves truck drivers - who are usually called truckers. It will generally have a very large parking area, diesel fuel, parts and supplies for trucks, and a greasy spoon, which means a very bad diner. Anything that truckers might need is usually available at a truck stop.

Accidents happen - and so there are many ways of talking about them. A ding is a small dent in a car. A car is T-boned when another car hits it in the side, at a right angle. If two cars are going in the same direction, and they hit, one has probably side-swiped the other - its side has hit the other car's side. If a car's front end hits the rear end of another car, the first car has rear-ended the second car. A fender-bender is a very minor accident, with no real damage to either cars or people - the sort of thing that people usually don't report, to avoid having their insurance premiums go up.

A biker is a motorcycle rider - as opposed to a cyclist, who is a bicycle rider. Sometimes, the term biker implies more - it may suggest that the biker in question is a member of a motorcycle gang (e.g., Hell's Angels), or just looks or acts like one. But, sometimes, it just means a motorcylist. Terms that mean "motorcycle" include chopper, hog, and scooter.

If someone is following you very closely - which is considered rude and irritating - it's called tailgating, and the person is called a tailgater. Don't confuse this evil activity with a tailgate party, which is an informal party held in the parking lot of a stadium before a sports game. The connection? The back part of a pickup truck, which can be opened, is called a tailgate.

There are a number of ways of saying "road". Highway is more common in the east, while freeway is popular in the west, particularly where there are few toll roads. Both terms refer to large, fast roads going long distances without being crossed by other streets or interrupted by traffic lights. Possibly the greatest civil engineering project of all time was the U.S. Interstate highway system, built during the Eisenhower era, and including most all the major highways in the country. Roads in this system are called interstates. Usually, street, avenue, road, and lane are used for smaller roads, like those inside towns and cities.

I couldn't care less means "I don't care". Sometimes, people mistakenly say I could care less to mean the same thing.

Back when money, mail, and news travelled by horse-drawn stagecoaches, there was a constant danger from bandits. So, there was often someone seated next to the driver, carrying a shotgun. From this custom (true or mythical), the seat next to the driver in a car is called shotgun, or the shotgun seat, and the person sitting there is said to be riding shotgun, or to have shotgun. It's a sort of game in some areas to see who can shout "I've got shotgun" first. If someone does this, you must allow them to have shotgun.

Do you still have unanswered questions about this topic -- or about anything else? Is there something that you would like to see an article about? Do you have advice, ideas, or experiences you would like to share with other international students? Let us know -- send us a message at: CityHall@istudentcity.com

This week: Idioms and Imagery
Back Issues
Table Talk

Shop Talk

Talk Turkey

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Spanish Roots: Why American English Is American (II)

Talking College

Native Roots: Why American English Is American (I)

"Here in my car, I feel safest of all."

Life in 'Hell'

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