Nowadays we’re very used to Britain and America interchanging ideas, TV programmes, products, work and much more – but at the birth of the automobile over a century ago things were much different.

Since Americans decided the ‘u’ in words like colour, flavour and harbour served no purpose and wouldn’t be missed; and that -er made more sense than -re in centre, theatre etc; and that æ should be ‘e’ not ‘ae’ in the likes of anaemia, they’ve moulded their language their own way.

Early dictionaries attempted to bring together the spellings of English words but by this time, in the 18th Century, the American English speakers had developed styles, accents, colloquialisms and dictionaries of their very own.

Fast-forward a century and a half to the birth of the horseless carriage and American English was firmly a language in its own right, so when designers either side of The Pond (and beyond) were naming parts of their cars according to what purpose they served, or what they looked like, they were setting off from a separate starting grid.

Saloon vs. Sedan

As cars began to take shape a couple of popular general forms began to emerge. Generally the bulk of the vehicle would be a large area to sit the driver and passengers, and then in front of that, but low enough to allow the driver to still see where they were going, was a smaller ‘box’ to house the engine and other mechanicals. Sometimes the luggage compartments (if any were included) were added into the passenger area, creating what’s known as a 2-box design like a modern hatchback or estate/station wagon. Sometimes, however, there’d be a third box with it’s own separate access attached to the back of the passenger department, and again this would be smaller to allow the driver and passengers to see out of the back. This third ‘box’ created the 3-box design . In basic terms this created the layout called ‘sedan’ by Americans, and ‘saloon’* by Brits.

Is this car a saloon or a sedan? The answer will depend on which side of the Atlantic you come from.

So why ‘saloon’ for the Brits? The word saloon was used for the luxury carriages on a train, and so suited the ideology of the early motor manufacturers. The word of course existed before that, and was used for a place to sit or gather – usually in a nice environment and with good company. The word itself, if traced back, finds its way onto mainland Europe and the likes of ‘salon’ in French and before that ‘sala’ in Italian – meaning a hall, which is where people would gather.

The American word sedan is a different idea, coming from the notion of sitting down rather than gathering together. A sedan existed before the automobile and was a mode of transport for the well-off, usually carried by servants and with a seating area for the passengers in the middle. It was often also referred to as a ‘litter’ – which could well have ended up being the name Americans took instead. This idea of the passengers being in a comfortable large box between two functional parts to the front and rear nicely fit the 3-box design, and so the name stuck. Interestingly if traced back far enough we end up in Italy again, with the word ‘sedia’ meaning ‘sit’.

*Pedants amongst us will surely point out that some two-box designs also qualify as a saloon – where the rear window does not open when the compartment is accessed, making it an access panel rather than a ‘door’ (like in an original Mini, making that a 2-box, 2 door saloon; as opposed to a modern MINI, which is a 2-box, 3-door hatchback).

Estate vs. Station Wagon

As mentioned in the saloon/sedan comparison the 2-box format can explain Estate and Station Wagon – which are essentially vehicles with a hatchback rear but with extra space behind the rear passengers. So if these cars are the same, why are the called different things?

The etymology of the American term ‘station wagon’ is due to the car’s original purpose of being able to carry more luggage away from a train station and transport the occupants to a hotel or holiday home. By 1923, with the Star Model C Station Wagon, they had started to be produced with that very purpose, rather than having to be custom built.

Is it an estate or a station wagon? US and UK English usage differs.

In Britain a similar kind of car had already been designed, again with the extra space needed for people and their luggage, and were originally named ‘shooting brake’ by around 1910. The country set had also fancied a new type of car, one with the space to carry belongings and, specifically, a choice of shotguns to go and hunt some game. It’s for this reason that ‘shooting brake’ name came about (the ‘brake’ part is still up for debate). Nowadays the term is reserved for what are in essence a sporty ‘estate car’, usually without rear doors cluttering up the lines. The estate cars of today are born from those early shooting brakes, but with more practicality and, in the early days between World Wars, were named ‘estate’ cars as usually that’s where they’d be heading, a nice country estate where the wealthy vehicle owners could unwind.

Bonnet vs. Hood

It’s no surprise the part of the car covering the delicate mechanicals from the elements is named after headwear – and the split between the US version (hood) and the British one (bonnet) shows more similarity in thought than it does difference in name.

The British ‘bonnet’ of course comes from the dainty headwear – preferred by women – in the early days of automotive design. Choosing a mainly feminine article fits with the European notion that all objects have a gender, indeed the French ‘La voiture’ shows why British car lovers often refer to their beloved motors as ‘she’ and ‘her’.

Does your engine live under a bonnet or a hood?

Over in the States the same idea was adopted, but a smaller influence from European gender-assignment to objects meant a much more neutral term was chosen. ‘Hood’ fit the bill – enveloping the engine and ancillaries nicely and more in keeping with a ‘hood’ on an outfit, rather than merely a cap or similar.

The terms are still around today – although the debate about whether mid- and rear-engined vehicles have their bonnets and hoods at the front or back can still stir a debate at the local pub. Or bar.

Windscreen vs. Windshield

What would you call a see-through panel designed to keep the wind (and more) from your face as you drive? The question was answered almost simultaneously either side of the Atlantic – the Brits deciding you were being screened from the wind, Americans decided you were being shielded from it. Which one is the most correct is a question that can’t really be answered.

The German word Windschutzscheibe literally means wind protecting pane, and the French pare-brise means wind-bumper – so everyone was along the same lines. Wind was clearly an issue in those days.

Windscreen or windshield

Sill vs. Rocker Panel

The rocker panel, or sill, is the part of the car traditionally running between the wheel-arches beneath the doors.

The etymology of the term ‘rocker panel’ is filled with theories, ranging from it being a colloquial term used when the panels were highly-chromed in the early days of rock music, to 4×4 enthusiasts deciding that when perched upon a particularly large obstacle which ‘beached’ the car, you could ‘rock’ it by pivoting your very strong ‘rocker panel’ on the obstacle to get a wheel to touch the ground and hopefully pull (or push) you out of danger.

The most convincing we’ve seen is actually from an excerpt of an 1881 James W. Burgess book on carriage design and explains it as an aesthetically pleasing facade covering an unsightly extra-deep floor (to give the passengers enough room) which, if left uncovered, would make the carriage proportions appear unbalanced. The design of this facade was based on rocking chairs, rocking horses etc, balancing the sense of depth to the naked eye with the real depth hidden by black paint beyond it. This kind of panel was apparently commonplace on carriages, and as the design of these was the basis for the early cars, the rocker panel remained a feature. As car design evolved, that part of the car did too – and the name had stuck by then.

The Brits, however, simply call this part of the car the ‘sill’. Sills are usually the flat part of the bottom of a frame for an object – think windowsill – a strong and settled foundation from which the object can be built. The same goes for the early cars. From a solid sill between the wheels the body of the vehicle can then be built. The old word syll is found in many similar forms in old English, Norse, Germanic and many more ancient and medieval languages, all tending to mean a solid foundation.

Petrol Tank vs. Gas Tank

Where the fuel is stored is clearly a ‘tank’ of some kind, the British and American names agree – but what of the name of the fuel itself? Gas and Petrol… the same, or different?

In both Britain and America, the idea of stepping on the gas, giving it some gas, or a gas pedal (even though the Brits may often call it the ‘accelerator’, or ‘throttle’ instead) is universally recognised. So why do the terms for the fuel differ?

Firstly – gasoline and petroleum are the same thing* – and in well over 99% of occasions you’re likely to encounter it, it won’t be a gas. As anyone who has refuelled a vehicle knows, the tank is filled with liquid.

Fill her up with gas? Or petrol?

Looking at the British term petroleum, or petrol, the root of this is quite clear, with the latin words for rock and oil being petra and oleum. The word petroleum, then, has been around for much longer than the first cars, indeed it can be traced in that form to 14th century France, and so shortening this to simply ‘petrol’ meant a modern name for an ancient product.

So why do Americans call this ancient rock-oil ‘gasoline’? Petroleum as a word was around in Europe back when the North American mainland was being filled with enthusiastic European settlers and so it’s likely those first English-speakers were aware of the term, but it’s only when this ‘rock oil’ was started to be split into different compounds did the term ‘gasoline’ come about. In a lot of organic chemistry, -ene or -ine is used (think benzene/benzine), and so the part of the petroleum distilled-off and used in motor vehicles was the part of highest volatility, and in time was dubbed gasoline. Until recently it was thought the ‘gas’ part of it was due to it’s nature of being quite gas-like, however, it may have actually come from a brand name of Cazeline (a product sold and imported into the UK by a Mr John Cassell, and so named after him – Cassel + ine), which, when made by others who were not allowed to use the brand name, began being sold as Gazeline – or, in time, ‘gasoline’.

*For emissions reasons the stuff you get in the US is different from Britain, with generally higher octane ratings allowed in Europe, but the two are essentially the same product.

Tyre vs. Tire

Tyre or tire

For British motorists, the rubber wheel-covering is called a tyre – for the Americans it’s a tire. But why?

For other parts of the car we’ve seen the words are completely different – but for this one it’s simply a matter of spelling.

Although there are many theories, the word tyre or tire appears to come from the word attire, in the sense that the wheel had been dressed in something to protect it. From the early days of rubber pods embedded into a wooden wagon wheel, this wheel-dressing has helped grip, and reduced the shock going through both the wheel and the vehicle’s occupants when it struck something on the road.

In the same way American English did away with the u in harbour and colour, it also kept things nice and simple in this instance, and so the ‘i’ sound in tire simply became that letter – whereas the British, with a language steeped in history and tradition, seemingly wanted to keep the ‘y’ in the same way ‘attyre’ may have been written by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and his counterparts in old English verse. In modern Britain, you’d be hard pressed to find someone giving a good reason why it’s remained ‘tyre’ rather than ‘tire’ – except “that’s how it’s always been”.

Boot vs. Trunk

The part of the car used to hold items you won’t need access to without stopping the vehicle is called the boot in the UK, and the trunk in the US. These words may be different, but their meaning is incredibly similar when taken back to their origins.

In Britain during the time before cars and subsequently on early car designs a coachman, charged with driving the vehicle – whether that be the horse pulling a carriage or perhaps an automobile, would need to take some items with him (for it would inevitably be a man in those days), and would generally sit or stand on a locker containing his boots – much-needed sturdy footwear to change into for the inevitable repairs to the carriage or automobile whilst on appalling early roads built mainly for hooves rather that wheels. Keeping these boots and other things in the receptacle mean it was named the boot locker – and, in time, simply the boot. As time went on and coachmen were not needed, the boot was still very handy and a crucial part of a desirable carriage design.

On the other side of the Atlantic something similar was happening, it’s just that in the early days the item was carrying more than just boots, so tended to be an actual trunk attached to the car – usually at the back so as not to block the view ahead. In time, much like the ‘boot’, the ‘trunk’ became part of the car itself rather than a tacked-on afterthought. And the name stuck.

boot or trunk

Wing vs. Fender

The part of the car covering the wheel has two very different names depending on whether you’re coming from a British viewpoint or an American one.

Although nowadays the fender/wing covering the wheel is very much part of the overall car body, in the early days of car design the wheels were more remote from the chassis, and so to stop all manner of grubby bits flicking up at high speed from the wheels into other road users (and all over your own gleaming coachwork) there needed to be some kind of extra guard.

fender bender or wing ding?

To the British designers of the day these extra panels sticking out from the main body – with sweeping, flowing curves – resembled the wings of birds, and so the name was given. Over the years the name has stuck to some extent, but with the wheels of modern cars becoming ever more integrated into the overall form of the car the idea of a ‘wing’ seems a bit vague, and so these are often now simply called ‘arches’ or ‘panels’ (or ‘bumpers’ if they’re at the points likely to make contact with other vehicles, like the front and back). Indeed the term ‘wing’ to a British youngster would usually conjure up images of a spoiler attached to the back of a car.

In the US these wheel-covers were given a name which reflected their purpose rather than the way they looked, and so the piece of metal which guards the detritus flying up from the road was called the ‘fender’ – literally fending off the attack of the muddy roads. As time went on this function still applied, and therefore so did the name. In the states, a small incident that might be called a ‘bump’ by a Brit where the bumper makes contact with something, would often be called a ‘fender bender’.