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?

  • 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. Jan 28, 2012 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. Jan 28, 2012 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. Jan 28, 2012 at 21:40
  • "Machine" is the term my father's mother always used, when referring to an automobile (and her daughter -- my aunt -- used it too, until later in her life, though I don't recall my father using the term). I'm thinking my grandmother was born about 1880, in the rural Louisville, KY area, with "roots" in that area going back a couple of generations, and a Dutch background before that. I'm guessing she had an 8th grade education.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 21, 2016 at 22:25
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    My grandmother always used this term, in the 50s & 60s. Her daughter (my aunt) did too, occasionally.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 17, 2022 at 14:52

4 Answers 4


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. Jan 28, 2012 at 18:30
  • ...a racing (pedal-)bike can be a "machine", for instance. But probably not a skateboard. Jan 28, 2012 at 18:32

My parents born in 1902 and I in 1940 Baltimore Maryland. As a child they would say, "Should we walk or take the machine" meaning the car.

For context, there were probably other regional differences of usage, that may not have made it to dictionaries:

  1. My mother also told me to put on a "blouse" and I am male, and it sounded strange because it's what my sister wore. So, I looked it up and the word originally meant from the french, a loose garment worn by workers or peasants. So, while that word had changed it probably was commonly for both genders in her youth.
  2. In the era before mass media, even movies were silent in my folks youth,
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    This doesn't seem to answer the question: you're talking more about the etymology of 'blouse' rather than that of 'machine' meaning car. Stack Exchange isn't a normal discussion forum; you might like to take our tour to get a better idea of how things work here. Thanks :-) Aug 21, 2016 at 22:55
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    @randal'thor I disagree, a bit. Though an extraneous story, the answer does verify the usage of the term, in relationship to a region and demographic Aug 21, 2016 at 23:14
  • @NewAlexandria ... for some definition of 'verify' (i.e. just personal experience, without links or sources). At best, everything but the first two sentences should be edited out. Aug 21, 2016 at 23:15
  • The third paragraph (#1) illustrates how the meaning of a word can shift over time, and so it is tangentially relevant.  But I don't see the relevance of the last paragraph.  (And why does it end with a comma?) Aug 22, 2016 at 1:47

My grandfather, born around 1910, used "machine" to mean automobile. I asked him why. He explained that in his day, "car" referred to a streetcar, and "machine" meant automobile.


The OED traces to use of “Machine” (as a means of transport) thus

5. a. A ship or other vessel. Now colloquial: a boat.

1637 T. Heywood True Descr. Royall Ship 27 Shee [sc. Pallas] hath (no doubt) raptured our Undertaker This Machine to devise first, and then make her.

1807 R. Southey Lett. from Eng. II. 155 We..embarked upon the canal in a stage boat bound for Chester... The shape of the machine resembles the common representations of Noah's ark.

1985 Sydney Morning Herald 27 July 67/6 He..had no second thoughts about helping to sail it—and it is a flighty, high-performance machine—in the Round Britain race.

No distinction seems to have been made between “wheels and no wheels"@ the essence was "transport", but obviously, to the average citizen, a machine was more common as a wheeled vehicle:

b. A (usually wheeled) vehicle or conveyance, esp. one drawn by a horse or horses, or other draught animal or animals. Formerly esp.: a stagecoach or mail coach; (also) a brake, trap, or small carriage (chiefly Scottish). Now historical.

1687 A. Lovell tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant iii. 54 They make use of an Engine which they call Palanquin... This Machine hangs by a long Pole [etc.].

1759 J. Newton Diary 21 Mar. in Deserted Village (1992) 17 Went to London in the Oxford Machine.

1832 Mass. Stat. c. 75 §4 Every cart, wagon, or other machine, drawn by two or four oxen.

1911 G.N.S.R. Tourist Guide 305 Close and Open Machines suitable for Marriage and Picnic sent anywhere with good horses and careful drivers.

1986 P. O'Brian Reverse of Medal (1987) viii. 218 The chaise lost not a moment:..the elegant black and yellow machine ran steadily north..never lacking for horses at any stage on the road.

There seems little doubt that “machine” was merely an extension of the idea of a cart, trap, or stagecoach, etc:

h. Originally and chiefly U.S. A motor vehicle, esp. a car.

1901 McClure's Mag. 18 i. 21/2 His assistant crouching at his feet out of range of the swift-flying currents of air produced by the mad flight of the machine.

1915 Sat. Evening Post 3 Apr. 62/2 The reliability of the machine was so amazing that, in seven years of business, not a single breakdown had been reported.

1929 D. Hammett Red Harvest xv. 154 The machine that had been trailing us came into sight around a bend in the road..and unloaded its cargo of men and weapons.

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