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Does anyone know the etymological history or the reason behind the different names that British and American speakers use to refer to the automobile's largest storage receptacle, or more plainly, the boot or the trunk? Perhaps a prominent company's advertising or a prior related usage on either side of the Atlantic influenced this divergence?

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What about hood vs. bonnet? :) – Jimi Oke Mar 11 '11 at 3:22
Windshield/windscreen? Fenders/mudguards? Turn signals/indicators? License plate/registration plate/number plate? :-) – PLL Mar 11 '11 at 3:53
It really was a trunk! – HaL Mar 11 '11 at 3:56
@HaL: If that's an answer rather than a coincidence (i.e., early cars really had a trunk which is how 'trunk' became standard in British English), you should post it so it can be voted up. :-) – ShreevatsaR Mar 11 '11 at 5:45
@Jimi Oke I think I'll have to ask that sometime later, actually ;) – Uticensis Mar 11 '11 at 8:47
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The vocabulary applied to today's cars draws a lot from the vocabulary applicable to horse-powered vehicles. See for instance "Limousine", "Berline" in French and other languages or "Cruscotto" in Italian.

In the case of the English "boot", the origin is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the coachman used to sit on a locker where he could store, among other things, his boots. For this reason, this was termed the "boot locker" and after a while an additional compartment situated at the rear of the coach was used, also called for the same reason the "boot" (for short).

Boots of course were mandatory in those times given the state of the roads. Jane Austen alludes in several of her novels to the fact that speaking about the state of the roads was as common place in England as speaking about the weather. For one thing, the roads have improved since Jane Austen ;-). As for the weather...

As for the American "trunk", well it should suffice to look at all the classic cars designed in the post WWI era, for which trunks were mounted at the rear end.

In this affluent era, cars from manufacturers like Duisenberg, Cord, Buick, Lincoln were all competing for high end customers and these trunks featured many compartments for plates, whiskey flasks and all the paraphernalia needed to go for a picnic. Some cars (mainly coupés, or "roadsters") had special compartments for golf clubs.

In France a similar process lead to people saying "La malle arrière" (as in Louis Vuitton's piece of luggage) and now "le coffre" (the trunk), or in Spanish "el Baul" which is a large piece of luggage as well (and now a more simple "la maleta"). Same for Italian "La baule" which is both the boot or a chest (la baule da marinaio).

The fact that a trunk is a word for a large wooden chest suggests that some of them were carved out from tree-trunks as it is still sometimes found to be the case in some Asian countries were these items, lavishly decorated, are regarded as luxury items (and priced accordingly).

Further back in time "trunk" comes from Latin truncus, or "cut off" → truncated, as the trunk does to the end of a car.

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Pannatier Outstanding answer! – Uticensis Mar 11 '11 at 8:19
@Billare, thx. It also made me realise that both trunk and chest refer at the same time to the torso and a coffer. Can't be a coincidence... Another fine question for another day. – Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 11 '11 at 9:49
Awesome answer, short thing to add for your overview of different languages: The germans actual call it "Kofferraum" as in Trunk compartment - guess that's what it actually is... but getting OT here :) – LordT Mar 11 '11 at 13:33

Alain has given an excellent response on the etymologies of boot and trunk. As to why different terms are used, it is simply due to the fact that the cultures of Britain and American having a low level of interchange in the 1780-1950 period (while each was highly interconnected within themselves). During this period, developments called for expanded vocabularies, and the new word uses developed separately in the separate cultures. One place this process is mentioned is in this Wikipedia article, where it says:

The rise of capitalism, the development of industry and material innovations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were the source of a massive stock of distinctive new words, phrases and idioms. Typical examples are the vocabulary of railroading and transportation terminology, ranging from names of roads (from dirt roads and back roads to freeways and parkways) to road infrastructure (parking lot, overpass, rest area), and from automotive terminology to public transit (for example, in the sentence "riding the subway downtown"); such American introductions as commuter (from commutation ticket), concourse, to board (a vehicle), to park, double-park and parallel park (a car), double decker or the noun terminal have long been used in all dialects of English.

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I always had the opinion that the reason the US version is "trunk", is because dating back to horse drawn carriages, they often would just strap a trunk on the back. This carried over to early automobiles as well. Just do a google image search for cars from 1900.

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Look a little deeper: boot in the sense of the storage compartment of a car comes from an older word sometimes spelled "bote", meaning "box". The "bote" or "boot" of an old horsedrawn coach was originally an extra seat or place to stand on the side or back of the coach for a footman or someone else riding on the outside. It was built like a box.

By the time autos came around, this word had already been transferred to the storage compartment for luggage on a coach (which was also built like a box) because no one had footman riding on the outside of their coaches anymore. It wasn't any step at all to use it for the similar box on early autos.

Now, why is it called a "turtle" in some parts of the south? :) Or a "dickey" in some other parts of the English-speaking world? Both were nicknames for the rumble seat, a concealed folding seat at the rear of the auto. Rumble seats were often used for storage so the transfer was easy. It was called a turtle because it folded into the car like a turtle's body parts. It was called a dickey because when unfolded it stuck out like a bad dickey shirt front on a tuxedo or formal black-tie suit.

Dickey itself is from London street slang for shirt.

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What usually happens is that someone basically gets the drop on anyone else when attempting to introduce a new term. Up until that happens, the term would be basically unknown, or there would be several terms for the same thing. Then someone manages to make their preferred term widespread. For a car term like 'hood', it would likely be the result of marketing material across a wide area. Now many more people have reason to use the term and the one they're taught is that one.

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Hmm. Yah, it was probably a bit more general than you might have wanted. But it was based on what Melvyn Bragg said often happened with new words like that. – staticsan Mar 11 '11 at 5:23

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