How did modern vehicles get their names?

Petrol-driven vehicles are inventions of the late 19th century and 20th century. Many of their names have been borrowed and adapted from older vehicles and from other cultures. Their original meanings and how they are derived can be quite extraordinary.


Car is a very old word, it comes from the Latin carrum, the name for a two-wheeled war chariot from Gaul. The Romans didn’t use war chariots so the Romans borrowed the word from the Gauls.


Automobile comes, via French, from the Ancient Greek word auto (self) and the Latin mobilis (movable) meaning a vehicle that moves itself.


Cab is a shortening of cabriolet, which was a light, horse-drawn carriage. The word comes from French cabrioler meaning “to leap” from Latin capreolus for a wild goat. The link with leaping and mountain goats came about from the carriages springy suspensions.


Taxi is a shortening of taximeter cab referring to the taximeter, a meter to record the distance and fare. It was an instrument used in London cabs in the early 20th century.


Bus is an abbreviation of the Latin omnibus meaning “for all” from its early use for public transport. It has been suggested the name was first used as a Latin joke and then stuck!


Truck from Greek trokhos for “wheel” initially referred to a cart for carrying heavy loads (the British refer to it as a lorry).


Lorry a British railway word for a long, flat wagon, probably from an old English verb lurry “to pull or tug”. It is interesting that the British refer to railway wagons as trucks but still use the old word, lorry, for road vehicles.


Caravan comes from the old French carouan, picked up in the Crusades from Persian karwan, meaning a “group of desert travelers.”


Sedan (the equivalent of a saloon in British English) is derived from a southern Italian dialect sedia “chair” referring to a carried chair. It is the standard passenger car that seats 4-5 people.


Saloon (the British English version of a sedan (see above) is a reference to the luxurious large public hall used for entertainment (mid-18th century). The term was applied in the mid-19th century to railway cars furnished like drawing rooms  (and in the US was used for public bars from about the same time). It was then applied to large automobiles in the early 20th century.


Juggernaut, used to describe large trucks or lorries, comes from Puri in India. A huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna is paraded once a year. It comes from Hindi Jagannath, for lord of the world.


Charabanc is a type of horse-drawn vehicle or early motor coach, usually open-topped. They were common in Britain during the early part of the 20th century. The name derives from the French char à bancs meaning “carriage with wooden benches”.


Pantechnicon the word for a large removalist’s van is derived from a 19th century building in Belgravia, London. It was a Greek-styled storage warehouse called Pantechnicon (which still exists) from Greek meaning “pertaining to all the arts or crafts” . The Pantechnicon Ltd company used wagons with that name painted on the side, which became the generic name for the vans.


And back to Australia – a pantech truck or van is a vehicle with an enclosed cargo area. It is a shortening of pantechnicon, however it refers to smaller vehicles in Australia.