June 10, 2010

Writing an article about Word Origins

This was a fun little article I did on the origins of the word “chauffeur.”

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Why is that Chauffeur so hot under the collar? And why am I so Nonchalant about it?

Chauffeurs have been around for a long time, but didn’t start out driving cars. In fact, while most started as an early equivalent of gas station attendants, some actually had downright sinister beginnings.

It all started with fire. Or rather, with the fact that fire is hot or, in French, chaud, ultimately derived from the Latin calere, meaning “be warm.”

That French connection is important, because the first self-propelled vehicles, mostly tractors, were actually invented in Europe in the late 1700s. By the 1880s, there were many vehicles using either steam or gasoline, developed mainly in France and Germany.

The person who stoked the steam engine–kept it hot or chaud–was the chauffeur. As often happens, the name given to a job in the place where it was first invented, in this case France, was the name that stuck when the function expanded to other countries. Eventually the engine-stoker became the one who not only kept the car going but who was paid to drive it as well. His (and more recently, her) title was retained long after the steam-powered car had given way to the gasoline-powered vehicle that took far less work to keep running. But even today, it’s the chauffeur, and not a passenger, who sees to the business of keeping the tank full of fuel.

What about those other chauffeurs, though? The sinister ones? They lived around the same time as the earliest steam-powered vehicles, but they had no connection with them. These people were French brigands, around 1793, who pillaged some parts of France and burned the feet of their victims to extort money. That was where they got the name “chauffeurs.”

We can be thankful that they were a short-lived group and that foot-burning never became part of a modern-day chauffeur’s job description.

In fact, we can be nonchalant–another word, like chaud, derived from the Latin word calere. The word chaloir meant “to have concern for,” describing the way we might get rather heated with worry.

But when we have the rare pleasurable experience of having a chauffeur fuel up the car and drive us safely around, we can lean back, stretch out our legs, and be not-heated. Or in modern English and French–nonchalant.