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I've recently been reading some of the short stories of Dashiell Hammett featuring the Continental Op. These stories were written in the 1920s and are about a detective investigating crime in and around contemporary San Francisco.

I noticed that the characters frequently use the word machine to mean an automobile, and I wondered whether this was common usage for the time and place. I had not heard it before. To a modern reader, it has an archaic sound, as if the car were such a new development that there was not yet a specific word for it. But of course by the 1920s cars were very common, so this does not make sense. It may also be slang; given their criminal associations, Hammett's characters tend to speak mostly in slang.

Does anyone have more information about this usage and its history?

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Just about any "mechanism" can be a "machine", and it's hardly archaic. Here will be hundreds of written references to souped-up computers being called mean machines. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 18:16
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@FumbleFingers: In the usages you cite, context is used to make it clear what kind of machine is in question. In Hammett's writing, the characters use "machine" by itself without further clarification. If I said to you, "There is a machine outside my house," you would wonder what kind of machine (it could be a wood chipper, or a discarded piece of factory equipment), but Hammett's characters would immediately understand that I was talking about a car. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '12 at 18:29
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This could possibly be under the influence of Italian, in which the word for car is "macchina". After all the period you mention is the prohibition (1920 to 33), an era during which the Italian Americans had a prominent role. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jan 28 '12 at 21:40
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1 Answer

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition 5h of machine is ‘originally and chiefly U.S. A motor vehicle, especially a car.’ The first recorded use with this meaning is from 1901: ‘His assistant crouching at his feet out of range of the swift-flying currents of air produced by the mad flight of the machine.’ There is also a Hammett citation from 1929. The word seems to have been used in this sense throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Machine is a versatile word. Remember the film 'Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines'? And when Windows is doing some housekeeping on my computer, I am told ‘Please do not power off or unplug your machine.’

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A very versatile word, as you say. But it does have (loosely-defined) "scope". Most people wouldn't call an analogue watch a machine, even though it's got moving parts. But might call a computer a machine even if it had a solid-state hdd and no other moving parts. I think it's very much associated with "contraptions" that actually move, or do some work - and either don't need human energy as input, or somehow multiply up the input energy to achieve output that wouldn't be possible otherwise. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 18:30
    
...a racing (pedal-)bike can be a "machine", for instance. But probably not a skateboard. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 18:32
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