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A Mobe By Any Other Name . . .

December 15th, 2016

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill

Pen and ink sketch of two men in an early automobile.

Sketch from Geneva Daily Times, November 15, 1900

1899 saw the rise of a new, if silly, dilemma.  Automobiles were becoming common enough that Americans were bothered about what to call them.  “Horseless carriage,” “motor vehicle,” and “automobile” seemed cumbersome for common use.  “Car” still meant a train car or a street car.  The Geneva Daily Gazette weighed in on the matter in July, by reprinting a piece from the Boston Herald:

What Will We Call It?

            A short name for the automobile is troubling many people.  The present four syllables appear to be overexacting and as some are inclined to extend it to five by proun[o]uncing mobile “mobilee,” it is urged that the matter be decided at once.  In England, self-propeller, autocar and motor vehicle have been suggested, but without satisfying results.  In this country, motor carriage, autocarriage and motor vehicle have been brought forward with a like reception.  As trisyllabic bicycle was abbreviated into “bike,” the probability is that eventually quadrisyllabic automobile will shrink into “mobe.”  Purists will, of course, kick, as they did when cabriolet faded away into “cab,” telephone into “phone,” and the pantaloons into “pants,” but brevity is the soul of wit, and what’s in a name, after all?  To mobe or not to mobe – that is the question.  

The question was not just a northeastern concern.  The Gazette printed a suggestion from Milwaukee –  “If the automobile must be abbreviated, why not call it Tommy?”  By September 5, the Geneva Times reported “Two additional names suggested for automobiles are “sinequo,” meaning without horses, and “tomo,” borrowed from the word automobile.  The search will proceed, of course.”  Three days later the Times printed a longer discussion:

 Names Wanted.

The automobile, the horseless carriage, the autocarriage, or whatever it is finally decided Chicago shall call the horseless vehicle . . . is giving the citizens of the lake city much uneasiness these days.

The whole trouble is in finding a name that the entire city, or at least a majority, can agree upon.   . . . the only point upon which there has been any semblance of opinion so far is that it shall not be called by the same name as that which distinguishes it in Gotham.

To this important subject the newspapers of the city have given much attention, and have besides thrown their columns open to the public for a general discussion of a subject fraught with so much importance.

One man who has taken advantage of this opportunity to display his journalistic talents suggests that the machine be called an “autobaine”  . . .

  Another to whom this is distasteful would have it abbreviated to something short and easy, and suggests simply “rig.”  [“Rig” was often used for a person’s horse and carriage.]

Then another man, also looking for something short and easy, but to whom the word “rig” savors too much of the slang of the day, would have it called “tron.”  This, he declares, is Greek for electricity, and is so classical.  [Hm . . . did the classical Greeks actually have a word for electricity?   “Astrapi” was lightning, and “keraunos” was thunder and lightning.  Anybody?]  And so it goes through half a thousand names, and Chicago is no nearer a decision than it was when the discussion began.  In the meantime they are called “automobile,” and Gotham smiles.

In the meantime, some folks approached the issue informally. On August 25  Daily Gazette reprinted a piece from the Boston Journal –   “A scholarly gentleman saw one of the new vehicles on School street and he remarked to his companion:  ‘There goes one of them jiggers.’”

By the end of the year, the Times reported, “The latest name suggested for the automobile is Dewey.”  Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917) was famous for his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War.  The battle was in May 1898, and Dewey was still very much in the public eye over year later.  Many children, pets, and inanimate objects were named after him.

Postcard of a Model T driving near Castle Heights in Geneva.“Mobe” seems to have come the closest to catching on.  In August 1900, the Times stated, “The automobile face is the newest expression . . . says the New York Sun.  It is not the haggard, tense expression of the bicycle rider’s visage, but it is a consciously unconscious look that is interesting.  The women “mobers” smile a little as they flash over the road . . .”  We do not, however, call them mobes nowadays.  In September 1903, the Times printed a verse from the Washington Star containing the phrase “auto car.”  This was prophetic in separating auto from car.

In April 1906, the Advertiser-Gazette mentioned having “a Newburg paper giving a description of an auto-car made there by the Abendroth & Root Co., of which E. R. Burroughs is Superintendent.  Mr. Burroughs drove the first car through the streets of that city last Monday, and it attracted a great deal of attention.”  Having begun with the more formal name, the writer assumed readers would understand “car” when it came along in the next sentence.  By July 1909, the paper referred to “one of the largest and finest cars that have passed through here this year” – without any explanation being necessary.  We all knew what cars were by that point.

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