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Automobiles and Idioms

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On: Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 9:31AM | By: Karen Cook

Automobiles and Idioms

When Bette Davis tells us to “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” we all know what she meant. She wasn’t referring to an actual trip in a vehicle. Speaking to someone from a little more than a hundred years ago, you would have to explain what a seat belt is. There is a lot of idioms in use based on the world of cars that would be incomprehensible to our great grandparents.

When someone is in control or in charge of things we say he is “in the driver’s seat” . Alternately, we could say he is “behind the wheel” . Both conjure images of someone operating a vehicle and give the feeling of competence and the ability to do something. Our ancestors may have been able to piece together the first one, but the second would have left them scratching there heads since conveyances were not equipped with steering wheels.

Another wheel-related idiom is a reference to someone who is not paying attention. We say he is “asleep at the wheel”. This expression causes us to think not just of missing some details, we also think of ultimate tragedy from this inattention. Falling asleep while driving a horse-drawn vehicle could also end in an accident, but it is doubtful it would be the catastrophe it would be today in a car.

If an action or project is given the “green light” we understand this reference to mean a signal to go or permission to proceed. Conversely, a “red light” means the project has been stopped. Both of these obviously refer to traffic signals which were not in use until automobiles hit the road.

I don’t know about you, but toward the end of the day (and sometimes sooner) I just can’t go anymore. My grandmother used to say she was “plumb tuckered” but she would have understood if I said I was “out of gas”. Her mother may have too, but gas-powered engines were not in common use much farther back than that.

We’ve all had to deal with “backseat drivers”, those annoying people who are not directly in control of a situation but always know better than anyone else how best to proceed. Of course, you could always say, “It’s my way or the highway.” This is a thoughtful way of letting them know that they could have taken their own vehicle and driven it however they saw fit. I’m sure these people have always existed. I wonder what they were called before automobiles.

11-18 arm


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