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October 25, 2010

Car names invoke powerful imagery

Christine Lindberg

— The other day, when a character on TV mentioned his DeSoto, my daughter asked, “What’s a DeSoto?” “A car,” I answered, choking on my realization that there was no reason for a 23-year-old to have heard of a DeSoto.

But I have actually ridden in a DeSoto — and not in an antique car parade. The one I rode in was just days out of the showroom, and the last DeSoto was made in 1961.

I guess we know who the antique is.

The makes and models of automobiles that we see on the road every day don’t typically strike a chord of nostalgia, but the mention of a car that no longer rolls off the assembly line is another thing altogether.

Of all the words that would fill a dictionary of automotive language, none have more allure than the lexicon of car names. And none can better capture a personal memory or bring an era more quickly into focus than the names that have been retired.

As a newborn I was brought home in a Packard, the only make of car my father drove for some 30 years, until the brand had all but vanished from the landscape. Named for its founder, James Ward Packard, in 1899 and discontinued in 1958, the Packard is a permanent fixture in my life. On my dad’s factory-worker salary, a new car would never be in our garage, but those old Packards were hardly a deprivation.

To this day, I’ve never owned a piece of furniture as comfortable or as plushly upholstered as the back seat of a Packard. And roomy? As kids, we used to stand on the back-seat floor, grip onto the velvet hand strap on the back of the front seat and pretend we were water skiing. (Funny how flying down the highway with your children “skiing” in the back seat didn’t seem unsafe in the 1950s!)

When the Packard disappeared, I felt somehow protective of its memory, as if I owed it to the grand old thing to never forget it. Strange, but I think it’s left a trigger mechanism in me that goes off every time I hear the name of any make or model of car from the past. I figure it must have had a former “Packard-like” glory for someone, and I like that thought. As an observer of words, I also just like the names. Really, I’d love to go back in time to shake the hand of the person at Rolls-Royce who named the celebrated Silver Ghost. Last produced in 1926, this vehicle may have had the coolest car name of all time.

Whatever a car’s name, its ability to evoke the past is understood. When Archie and Edith Bunker sing, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great,” the fact that the LaSalle was made by General Motors 1927–1940 and was named for the French explorer Sieur de la Salle may not be apparent, but the more important message that this was a reliable and beloved American car from an earlier generation is wistfully clear. When Radar O’Reilly mentions his family’s Nash, it doesn’t much matter if you know that Nash Motors was founded in 1917 by Charles W. Nash, but it matters a lot that “Nash” sounds just as simple and friendly as what you would expect from a car driven by the O’Reillys of Iowa in 1952.

From Jack Benny’s Maxwell to the Beach Boys’ T-Bird, and even to the Delorean in “Back to the Future,” automobiles continue to leave their stamp on the timelines of our lives long after their production days are over. Among those lined up to join the nostalgic legacy of car names is Pontiac, which after 2010 becomes officially defunct. The Pontiac brand has been such a standard in the language of American motoring since 1926, that one can only imagine the extent of its influence for generations to come.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language?  E-mail me: Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.