Synonyms for “Car”

By Mark Nichol

The question of how to refer to one of the most integral artifacts of modern civilization illustrates the value of synonyms: The word a writer uses to refer to a car can assign value to that object and help the reader gauge nuances of the writer’s tone.

Car is a perfectly suitable, utilitarian word, but so many other possibilities await the resourceful writer. The formal term, automobile, and its truncated form, auto, are useful for elegant variation, conveyance conveys a highfalutin feel, and motorcar has a vintage connotation. Meanwhile, vehicle is inclusive of other types of motorized transportation.

For mock-poetic humorous effect, a writer might refer to his or her chariot or phaeton. (The latter is one of many synonyms for carriage, most of which, like phaeton, are obscure but can, given supporting syntax, be clear to the reader.) More informally, among other possible jocular references are buggy for a small, humble car and “babe magnet” (or my own clunky but precise coinage, “midlife-crisis-mobile”) for a particularly sleek, sporty car. (Of course, “babe magnet” can also be applied ironically to a car that is anything but alluring.)

Words and phrases that describe the category or size of vehicle include compact, convertible, coupe, hardtop, hatchback, sedan, “sports car” (or roadster, which can have a jaunty tone in the midst of lighthearted language), “sport utility vehicle,” “station wagon,” subcompact, truck, and van. Specific car brands inspire nicknames: Beamer or Beemer (BMW), Chevy (Chevrolet), Lambo (Lamborghini).

Pejorative terms include beater, bucket, clunker, crate, heap, jalopy, junker, rattletrap, and wreck. (“Gas guzzler,” meanwhile, emphasizes a car’s lack of fuel economy, and “land yacht” also indicates excessive size.) Among the celebratory slang terms are ride (an example of a verb converted to a noun) and wheels or “set of wheels” (examples of synecdoche, in which the name of a part represents the whole).

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5 Responses to “Synonyms for “Car””

  • Helen West

    My dad (who originated in East Anglia but was a merchant seaman for years) always referred to cars as “sheds”. I have never met anyone else who used this term, and it completely baffled one boyfriend when my dad, meeting him for the first time and knowing that he had a Triumph TR7 sports car, remarked “Hello mate – I hear you’ve got a very warm shed!” A couple of visits later, he was a bit more prepared when Dad greeted him with “Hello mate – where’ve you left your shed?”

  • Helen West

    P.S. I forgot to add that here in the UK people sometimes use “jam jar” (rhyming slang).

  • Jeff

    Don’t forget “whip”.

  • Stephen Thorn

    And there’s “flivver” for an older, shaky car and “hoopty” (urban slang) for a car that is a bit past its prime. You may also find “_mobile” in use where the car is relating to a famous car (ex. “Batmobile” or “Bloodmobile” for an ambulance). A car that’s alleged to be on its last legs might be called “bomb,” whether the car is really that far gone or not. There are also many terms that have passed into disuse with the passing of the auto for which they were coined, but are still useful if you’re writing about that time frame (Cobra, Mustang [or ‘Stang], 88, ragtop, mill, etc.).

    On the same level of “land yacht” is “couch with wheels,” for a luxury car. I personally have had two cars that earned the handle “Smokey,” one because it burned antifreeze and left billows of smoke behind it, the other because a fire started under the hood one evening.

    Also, depending on the time and setting of your story, you might use the old CB Radio terms for Volkswagon beetles (pregnant roller skate), tractor trailers (18 wheelers, Petes, Jimmy, etc.), and the rest.

  • thebluebird11

    I meant to stick my 2 cents in sooner but got sidetracked.
    @StephenThorn: Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane. I have a 60-year-old friend who is BMW all the way since his early teens. He turns up his nose at the 7-series, calling it “a living room on wheels.” He prefers the smaller cars and does amateur racing. @Mark: Might I also mention ‘Vette (short for Corvette) as long as we are talking brand nicknames.
    Also, FWIW, I should mention (@Mark) that my above-mentioned friend told me that “Beemers” are the motorcycles, and “Bimmers” are the cars. I mispronounced it once and he jumped down my tailpipe.

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