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The AUTO- age

How readily someone may be understood when using a new word will depend on several factors: the intuitable transparency of meaning, its clarity in context, the receptiveness of the audience, and so on. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that coiners or early adopters of new terminology often exhibit a certain hesitancy. Among the early evidence cited by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for any particular word, it’s not uncommon to find quotations which deliberately refer to the use of the word in question, or contain some knowing, self-conscious mention of it. In them, an author might declare his or her own coinage (as, for example, at Americanism n.) or, ironically, protest against a form or usage considered to be barbarously incorrect. But the tone is more usually tentative, enquiring about a word’s legitimacy or fitness for purpose, as with the first recorded instance of autobiography n., in 1797:

Self-biography.. We are doubtful whether the latter word be legitimate: it is not very usual in English to employ hybrid words partly Saxon and partly Greek: yet autobiography would have seemed pedantic.

Despite these pedantic origins, autobiography is easily recognizable in this familiar sense, meaning ‘an account of a person’s life given by himself or herself, esp. one published in book form’. It is a relatively rare example of an enduring everyday word which uses the prefix auto- where we might substitute self- nowadays, being less concerned about, or aware of, taboos surrounding etymological miscegenation.

OED’s entry for auto-, (comb. form) contains other similar but less successful formations such as autotherapy, n., and auto-diagnosis, n. An autoburglar, n. is a curious nonce-word for ‘a person who burgles his or her own house’, and the gruesomeautocannibalism, n. links to autophagy, n., ‘the action of feeding upon oneself’. Here the use of auto- is more typically scientific, as defined at sense 1.a.:

relating to chemical, biological, or organic processes, with the sense ‘originating within or acting on the body or organism in question; self-produced; self-induced.’

In this sense, terms like autohypnosis, n. (1889) and autosuggestion, n. (1885) anticipate the advent of modern psychology and its detailed academic exploration of the human ‘self’.

Toys and curiosities

The most noticeable feature of auto- is its surge in productivity in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, which saw an explosion of vocabulary relating to ‘automatic’ technology.

Automatic, adj. has a long history relating to ‘spontaneous’ action and ‘mechanical’ contrivance, once characterized by the ingenious automaton, n.: ‘a moving device having a concealed mechanism, so it appears to operate spontaneously’. OED’s entry, first attested in 1616, elaborates:

Originally denoting various functional instruments including clocks, watches, etc., as well as moving mechanical devices made in imitation of human beings; later (from the early 19th cent.) usually restricted to figures simulating the action of living beings and widely regarded as toys or curiosities, as clockwork statues or animals, images striking the hours on timepieces, etc.

In the Victorian era, electricity and combustion engines pushed this idea of ‘self-generated movement’ beyond the realms of the quaint and the clockwork toward something altogether more dynamic and urgent, and auto- proved particularly useful in imagining and expressing this new technological potential.

Auto-converter, n., auto-valve, n., and automotor, n. are all typical of their time, applied to newly invented things ‘that function automatically’, and constituting a new sense of auto-, comb. form. Crucially, many relate to component parts not only of automatic but of automobile machinery.

‘Lord Salisbury motored’

First attested in 1876 in the sense ‘propelled by some internal mechanism, self-moving’,automobile enjoyed a short history as an adjective before acquiring its noun form. Exactly like its equivalent, motor car, automobile, n. was used throughout the 1880s to mean ‘a motorized railway or tram vehicle’, before the invention of the vehicle which it most obviously denotes. In 1895, both motor car and automobile were first used for:

A road vehicle powered by a motor (usually an internal-combustion engine), esp. one designed to carry a driver and a small number of passengers; a car.

As OED’s entry shows, the Encyclopaedia Britannica could claim in 1902 that automobilewas ‘the usual expression’ for the modern car in Europe and America.

By then, and in a strikingly short period of time, the invention had spawned a wealth ofauto- associated terminology and commentary. Among OED’s evidence, the year 1899 alone yields auto, n., autoing n., automobiling, n., and autoist n.:

1899 Boston Herald 4 July 4/7 If we must Americanise and shorten the word, why not call them ‘autos’?

1899 Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Jrnl. 19 July 5/7 Society is wondering over the tea cups as to whether it shall go ‘automobiling’, ‘autoing’, or ‘biling’.

1899 Weekly Register-call (Central City, Colorado) 17 Mar. 3/5 In London he is called ‘autoist’, ‘autocarist’ or ‘motocyclist’.

All of which, as with similar quotations at motor car n., motor v., and motoring, n., are noticeably self-conscious, conveying the level of contemporary excitement and discussion:

1895 F. R. Simms Let. in Autocar 21 Dec. 92/1, I think it is nothing but right that the ‘iron horse’, like cycling, should also have its verb. I beg to suggest motor-touring, say motouring or motoring, the verb would thus be to motour (motor). Of course it might strike us as rather funny now, if we read in the paper ‘Lord Salisbury motored’ this afternoon from Downing Street, and arrived at Paddington Station at exactly six o’clock.

1895 Daily Chron. 29 Oct. 5/1 A name has not yet been found for horseless carriages.‥ The latest suggestion we have had is ‘motor car’.

Reckless speed

Other permutations of car-related auto- words around this time include autocrime, n.,autodrome n., and automania, n.—the latter defined in 1902 by a popular car magazine,The Horseless Age, as ‘the development of a taste for reckless speed’.

The reckless speed with which such words appeared left another magazine, Motor Car World, in no doubt that ‘Automobilism will be the method of locomotion of the future!’ (cited at automobilism, n.). The method of the future, perhaps – but not quite the word. As with several similar terms, automobilism now seems forced and redundant, and is marked as ‘arch. and hist. in later use’.

The abundance of these terms, and the breathless self-referential nature of their beginnings, reflects the pace of the car’s early development and popularity. It also suggests the phenomenon of a technology accelerating and evolving more rapidly than the language needed to describe it, making an immediate and settled vocabulary elusive. A legacy of this may be the confusion that still exists with the interchangeability of auto, automobile, car, and motor car. In much the same way, multiple computing and internet terms vie for pre-eminence today.

Autos in the OED

Interestingly, the invention and mass production of the car coincided with the composition of the OED, so that the first published section of the dictionary, the 1884 fascicle covering A – ANT, arrived too early to contain many auto- related entries. As the long process of compiling the first edition progressed, these must have seemed like glaring omissions. They were ultimately gathered alongside other material that had accrued during the writing process to form the first Supplement, published when the various alphabetical sections were issued as a complete set for the first time, in 1933.

One of the many additions to the newly-revised set of auto- entries in the OED is the inclusion of auto– (comb. form 2) as a separate entry in its own right, being a shortened form of automobile, n. ‘prefixed to the names of vehicles with the sense ‘self-propelled; powered by motor’’, as in autocab and autobus. Which shows just how far automobile has travelled beyond its origins.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Steyr endurance automobile, signed by driver” by Richard. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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