MyStarCollectorCar addressed British versus North American car guy slang five years ago, but the article left a few unanswered questions–like this one.
The best way to approach this is to throw out the nationalism and simply analyze this from a position of logic. In other words, if you were explaining these automotive terms to a guy from Mars, which ones more closely describe the car part or the tool.
Let’s start with ‘spanner’. That’s what British guys call ‘wrenches’.
There’s a simple test here–apply the term to the action. Do you wrench a bolt off a wheel or do you spanner it off? I have to go all-in with wrench because it aligns so much better with the physical action behind taking a wheel off–spanner simply makes no sense.
Here’s another one–British guys call them ‘dampers‘ and Americans call them ‘shock absorbers‘.
In this case, the term damper applies–in a vague way–to the action of what we call a shock absorber. Yes, it’s true this suspension part is dampening the effect of crappy road versus ride, but shock absorber is a far more precise term.
What about ‘rev counter‘ versus ‘tachometer‘?
Score one for the British because rev counter is going to make far more sense to a Martian than a tachometer, because rev counter describes the action of a gauge designed to measure rpms more accurately than tachometer.
North American ‘fender’ versus British ‘wing’ is less clear.
Neither term really describes the formed piece of metal that encloses your wheels and provides support for the hood–but I’m going to lean toward fender because ‘fend off’ more accurately describes what a fender does. Wing simply makes no sense–your Martian buddy would never make the connection.
How about ‘hood’ versus ‘convertible top‘?
You could make a weak case for the British word in the sense that a hood is something you wear in bad weather–but convertible top is far more precise. Convertible top describes the action of the roof itself more accurately than hood because the car is converting from roofed to roofless—a Martian with even a minimal dose of logic will get the concept.
‘British quarter light’ versus North American ‘vent window‘ isn’t even close in terms of accurate description of function.
Vent window is a clear term for what a vent window does–let air out. Quarter light sounds like something Shakespeare would say. Your Martian pal doesn’t need a lesson in literature when he’s learning about cars.
British ‘sump’ for North American ‘oil pan’ is essentially another tie–with conditions.
Sump does describe the place where the oil sits in an engine–think about your basement sump so the term sump fits in terms of what it does but it’s less precise. This might be splitting hairs, but oil pan is more specific because ‘oil’ is in the name. Your new Martian friend will appreciate the extra effort.
By: Jerry Sutherland
Jerry Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer with a primary focus on the collector car hobby. His work has been published in many outlets and publications, including the National Post, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Sun and The Truth About Cars. He is also a regular contributor to Auto Roundup Publications.
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