By Tom Anderson
Three ubiquitous forms of transport we now take for granted are the bicycle, the car and the aeroplane (or airplane in American English). A remarkable fact from our perspective with hindsight is that the invention of these three technologies—at least in a popular and usable form—all happened in a period of only a couple of decades or so at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. This is not to say that these inventions were not built on earlier work, of course. The word ‘bicycle’ is first recorded in the 1860s and there were attempts at building bikes throughout the nineteenth century, from the pedal-less ‘dandy horse’ to the familiar Victorian Penny Farthing and Boneshaker—but they would not achieve mass popularity (anywhere except England) until the chain-driven ‘safety bicycle’ in 1885, the ancestor of modern bikes.
Similarly, attempts at building self-propelled road cars date back to the eighteenth century and the steam power work of Cugnot in France and Trevithick in Britain, but again these early ideas did not achieve mass popularity. Cars would not become a realistic mode of travel until Karl Benz’s ‘Patent-Motorwagen’ in 1886—just one year after the invention of the safety bicycle! Nonetheless, it would take until the twentieth century for cars to become a realistic purchase for the average consumer, and the 1890s instead saw the Bicycle Craze, complete with the menace of the ‘scorcher’ or dangerous young cyclist who knocked pedestrians over. (It is now little remembered that the song ‘Daisy Bell’, now best known for its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey, includes a verse in which the cavalier couple on their tandem dismiss the idea of lamps and policemen at night). Indeed, dangerous drivers were originally called ‘motor-scorchers’ by analogy to their cycling prototypes.
Then there is the aeroplane. There is a Leonardo da Vinci quote—now sadly thought to be fabricated by a 20th century biopic, but nonetheless apposite—“Once you have first tasted flight, forever you will walk with your eyes turned skywards. For there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” Certainly, the idea of flight has excited the human imagination more than any other form of travel from the beginning, from legends like Daedalus and Icarus onwards. Strictly, the aeroplane only refers to heavier-than-air methods of travel, as opposed to ballooning which is a separate discussion (and began rather earlier).
As with the bike and the car, there were early attempts at heavier-than-air flight which went nowhere, such as Henson and Stringfellow’s Aerial Steam Carriage in 1842.
Numerous aviation pioneers from the eighteenth century onwards observed that the limiting factor of heavier-than-air flight was coming up with an engine that would be light enough yet powerful enough to be usable, and that would have to wait for the turn of the twentieth century.
The Wright Brothers’ ‘Flyer’ is recognised in most countries as the first example of true heavier-than-air powered flight, yet it is illustrative of how much the idea had excited scientists and engineers, and of how many others were working on it, that there are at least six other claimants to the title, perhaps the most significant being Alberto Santos-Dumont of Brazil. Certainly this is an example of ‘in spite of a nail’ in alternate history (AH); if anything had happened to the Wright Brothers, it would be rather unrealistic to suggest this would significant delay the progress of powered flight. Within a decade or so of that first tentative flight, aeroplanes had already become practical weapons of war in the First World War, and—as Patrick Moore observed—astonishingly only about 65 years separate the first powered flight from the moon landing.
From an AH perspective there is much to consider in the field of transport, and we might choose to focus on differences to the technologies themselves that could have arisen. Steam could have become used more for personal travel (there was a brief craze at the start of the 19th century for steam carriages in our timeline, OTL) and not solely for railways. Rudolf Diesel’s titular engine was originally designed to run on other fuels than modern diesel oil (and indeed still can, notably renewable vegetable oils). World War II had a huge impact on aircraft design; jet engine development was accelerated and the construction of many concrete airstrips led to the mass rollout of airports for passenger planes, whereas before the war many passengers had travelled by flying-boat due to the lack of many airports. There might also have been more radical differences to aircraft design—in his SLP book The Plague Policeman, Tony Jones explores a world in which most aircraft are asymmetric, as indeed a few little-known ones have been in OTL.
However, this article series is about alternate terminology, so here we shall be focusing more on how we choose to name these craft. As always, we can receive some insight about alternate terms we might use in AH by looking at the different terms used in different languages in OTL, and where they originate from.
Let’s start with the bike. The earliest beginnings of the bike, as mentioned above, was the pedal-less dandy horse invented by German inventor Karl Drais in 1817. Drais himself preferred the German term Laufmaschine, meaning simply ‘running machine’, as it was propelled by a running motion rather than pedals. Other words used at the time were ‘Draisine’ (after its inventor) and vélocipede in France, meaning ‘fast foot’ in Latin. Drais patented his invention in France under that name, and in French it has stuck; though the French speak of le cyclisme when talking about cycling as a pursuit, they usually refer to bikes by the abbreviated name vélo. Related terms are still used for bikes in many languages, such as Russian. This term has even re-entered English indirectly with words like Velodrome for an arena for track cycling (but stay tuned for how –drome could have meant something quite different!). Another term for early bicycles in French was céléripede (celeripede in English), meaning the same thing but using a different word for ‘fast, swift’ (as in ‘celerity’). As it is a fairly logical term to use and could have survived just as ‘vélo’ did in French, I have used this term in my AH work Look to the West as the popular term for bicycle.
What about ‘bicycle’ itself? As noted above, the term dates from the 1860s and just means ‘two wheels’. We could just as easily have drawn on other synonyms in Latin and Greek and called it a birota or a duocyclos or even gone full Anglo-Saxon and said two-wheeler. Most languages use their own rendering (often phonetic) of either ‘(bi)cycle’ or ‘velocipede’, with some exceptions such as German’s Fahrrad (‘drive wheel’). China, perhaps more than any country, has been transformed by mass ownership of bikes for personal transport, and Chinese in its several dialects has many different terms for bikes. One of the best known terms in Mandarin is zixingche, which literally translates approximately as ‘a vehicle by oneself’ and illustrates the freedom for personal travel that bicycles granted to formerly sedentary populations.
Cars, on the other hand, are a good illustration in the tendency for many people to—when faced with a new exciting technology—to stick to using familiar terms in a new way. When cars first entered the scene, there were a huge number of neologisms bandied about in the papers to describe them (many of which are listed in Bill Bryson’s Made in America). At one point it seemed as though ‘the machine’ was going to become the most popular term—and indeed it did in many countries, mostly Russia and the former Soviet Union. Automobile, meaning ‘it moves by itself’ in Latin, has become the standard term in many countries. It is often abbreviated to Auto(notably in German, where for example Volkswagen has used the simple slogan ‘Das Auto’)—despite the fact that both German inventor Karl Benz, and indeed the name of Volkswagen itself, instead used Wagen (waggon in British English, wagon in American English). It is interesting that the Auto abbreviation has caught on, despite auto- being a prefix used in many other technologies (as in ‘automatic’, meaning ‘it acts by itself’). Automobile could easily have been abbreviated to Mobile instead (as indeed it has in a few languages), and I use this in Look to the West.
In English, however, people have proved more conservative. Although automobile is a popular term in the USA, it is the exception to the rule. After all the excitement over the new technology, English has mostly reverted to terms that already existed for horses and carriages. Indeed, cars were originally called motor-cars in British English (and occasionally still are today in more formal contexts) to distinguish them from regular cars, which were horse-drawn carriages (‘car’ is simply an abbreviation of ‘carriage’; early cars were sometimes called ‘horseless carriages’, which in Decades of Darkness is abbreviated to ‘horst’). The use of the term motor-car throughout the then British Empire meant that in some languages, such as the Hausa language of Nigeria, the modern word for car derives from ‘motor’. The word car itself ultimately descends from the same root as the word for chariot, and in French car and char can both be used for vehicles. However, the French generally prefer the word voiture, from a Latin word meaning ‘to carry or bear’, which was directly translated into Polish as samochód.
It is not merely the word for car itself in which English proved conservative. Many of the terms we take for granted in describing types of car, such as saloon or estate (in British English—similarly with sedan or station-wagon in American English) go back to horse-drawn carriage. Saloon refers to the car being build around one big ‘room’, whereas sedan similarly suggests a ‘room’ between bonnet and boot (or hood and trunk in the US) and evokes the old sedan chairs of the seventeenth century. Estate cars, or station-wagons in the US, are both named because they were originally a luggage-capacious mode of transport between a country estate and the nearest railway station. London taxis are still called hackney carriages, originally referring to a kind of horse and cart (itself named after the London region of Hackney). Grand tourer cars are of course named for the eighteenth century Grand Tour of Europe. It is remarkable that so much terminology of the car consists of words that people in the time of the American Revolution would immediately recognise! At the same time, it is also one of the richest areas for transatlantic name differences in terms of parts of the car.
Finally let’s consider the aeroplane (or airplane). As noted above, the idea of flight has long excited the human imagination, and comparisons to birds abound: the Latin word avias for bird gave rise to ‘aviation’, ‘aviator’, and the French word for aeroplane, avion. Many AH works similarly apply bird-related words to planes in English instead. Like cars, many terms abounded in competition for heavier-than-air aircraft in English when they first appeared on the scene, one of the most peculiar of which in hindsight being aerodrome (despite the fact that –drome already meant something like a racetrack in Greek, as in hippodrome for horse racing). Though soon re-applied to the landing field rather than the aircraft itself in OTL, I chose to use this in Look to the West because of the strangeness of it: it allows compounds like ‘counterdrome gun’ instead of ‘anti-aircraft gun’. After all, the term aeroplane or airplane is itself pretty odd—the ‘plane’ in it refers to the wings having a flat surface, yet most wings don’t strictly have a flat surface!
Many languages still prefer to use a term translating to ‘flying machine’, which is now regarded as a charming archaicism in English (as in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines). German Flugzeug is one of these, as is Mandarin Chinese Feiji and Japanese Hikoki. Russina’s Samolyet is more comparable to terms for bike and car, literally meaning ‘flies by itself’.
We have seen from this brief review that there is a great scope for having alternative (yet still recognisable) terms for everyday transport technologies in AH works. Try it yourself: if you have a timeline or story with a point of divergence early enough, have your protagonist book a ticket on the aquila to fly to Paris so he can take a draisine to his hotel, and you’ve immediately highlighted that something’s not quite right…