October 17, 1999 - Slangman: Car Talk

INTRO: This week Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti go for a spin with the language of cars.

MUSIC: "Little Deuce Coupe"/Beach Boys

AA: We hit the road to answer a question from Dustin Mencius at Tianjin Medical University in China. He's baffled by all the different terms Americans use for automobiles. And there are lots of them - starting with the "little deuce coupe" in that Beach Boys song.

RS: A "deuce coupe" is a 1932 Ford with lots of power, a hot rod. "Deuce" is slang for "two" - as in 1932 - and a "coupe" is a car with two doors.

AA: ... not to be confused with a "sedan" which is a car with four doors.

RS: Now either a coupe or a sedan can be a "convertible" also known as a "rag top" -- a car with a fabric roof that goes up and down.

AA: If you need more room, you might want to drive a "station wagon." That's a passenger car with seats in back that can fold down or be removed to open up storage space.

RS: A "mini van" is similar to a station wagon with rows of seats and a back storage area.

But a mini van is built on a higher frame and looks more like a truck than a passenger car.

AA: In recent years Americans have learned a new term: S-U-V. That stands for sport utility vehicle. It's also a cross between a truck and a car, but rides even higher on the road than a mini van and has four wheel drive and a boxy shape. Today half of all new passenger cars sold in America are S-U-V's.

RS: Sport utility vehicles don't have much to do with sports, except that they can lug bikes and other gear off-road through mud and snow.

SFX: (car engine sound)

AA: Let's "shift gears" now and head out to Los Angeles to chat with "Slangman" David Burke.

RS: He says Americans have some pretty endearing names for their cars - that is, when their cars run well.


"Usually you'll say baby. `Wow that baby can move.' If you refer to a car as a baby, that's actually a good thing. And that term is also used in general for anything that is really good. Now, on the other side of the coin, taking about cars - a `clunker.' Now that's something that doesn't work very well.

A clunker is generally a car that is very old and looks like it has been in a lot of accidents." AA: You can also refer to a car by its wheels.

RS: As in, "Hey, nice set of wheels!" or "Can I borrow your wheels. They're also known as "rides" - as in, hey, nice ride - meaning nice car.

AA: So what does it mean if you want to take those wheels "for a spin"? David Burke explains.


"Now we all know what spinning means.

It means going around and around really fast. If I buy a new car I go to your house and I say, `Come into my car and let's go for a spin.' A spin simply means a quick little trip in the car with no particular destination." RS: And, if I ask someone along, I might say "hop in." AA: That's what David Burke said as he took us for a virtual spin down one of the most famous streets in Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard.

RS: At night young people "cruise" Sunset Boulevard.

David Burke says that means they go out in search of some fun.


"The sky is dark, but Sunset Boulevard is bright with lights. Every storefront is lit up. The traffic is `bumper-to-bumper' - which is another good expression - because you are right on top of the other person's bumper practically, because you are hardly moving.

There are lots and lots of convertibles or `drop tops' as we say. People are sticking their heads out screaming and waving to each other, And, it becomes a huge - another expression -- `tailgate party' - where all these kids are just sitting there basically in this gigantic parking lot (stopped traffic).

What happens is the (traffic) creates a lot of `pile ups' - another good expression -- meaning traffic accidents, and `bunch ups,' a good term for traffic accident."

AA: David Burke says it's pretty much "gridlock" - cars backed up in all directions -- for about an hour and a half every night, just after dusk.

RS: Now if you're cruising the Internet, and you'd like to learn about David Burke's latest book on American slang and idioms, you can visit him at www.slangman.com.

AA: And if you'd like to send us e-mail, our address is word@voa.gov. Or write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547.

RS: Now we've got to burn rubber out of here.

AA: OK, Rosanne, put the pedal to the metal.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Little Deuce Coupe"