Russia gave us perestroika. Norway (via Winston Churchill) introduced quisling into the English language. Now, Southern California has made its own contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary: SigAlert.
Editors added the term to the reference manual last year, a toast to a region famous for its love affair with the automobile. According to the OED entry, a SigAlert is "a message broadcast on the radio giving warning of traffic congestion; a traffic jam." The word pays homage to local broadcaster Loyd Sigmon, whose breaking bulletins of major tie-ups in the 1950s are legend.
But what about other automobile- and road-related terminology?
Where do everyday words such as \o7 traffic \f7 and \o7 driv\f7 e come from? Why is it that we Yankees insist on stowing our bags in the \o7 trunks \f7 of cars, whereas across the Atlantic, people put things in the \o7 boot? \f7 And are freeways called that because they're free to drive on? How did \o7 jaywalker \f7 ever enter our vocabulary?
For the answer to the first question, look no farther than your dog-eared high school copy of "Romeo and Juliet."
Surprisingly, Shakespeare's beloved tragedy contains some of the first English references to \o7 traffic \f7 and \o7 drive \f7 in usages similar to those today.
Until the play appeared at the end of the 16th Century, \o7 drive\f7 almost always meant to force men or animals to move on or away in a negative sense, as in "drive back," "drive away" and "drive out."
Shakespeare equated driving with guiding a vehicle, which is what we modern folk understand best. In "Romeo and Juliet," a chariot is guided by a fairy with the power to make men dream.
"Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck," Mercutio warns the love-struck Romeo in Act I, Scene IV, "and then dreams he of cutting . . . throats."
How many of us frustrated commuters can claim never to have felt the same way?
\o7 Traffic \f7 appears in the play's prologue, where we are told that the star-crossed lovers' tale will be "the two hours' traffic of our stage."
In medieval times, the word often meant communication or business, such as drug traffic. But soon it came to denote the to-and-fro passing of people, vehicles or vessels, and nowadays, two hours' traffic is more likely on the Santa Monica Freeway than on the stage.
In the 20th Century, the car-crazy United States claimed the word \o7 traffic \f7 as its own and came up with a whole host of new phrases and ideas.
Where did \o7 traffic jam \f7 originate? America, circa World War I. Who put \o7 traffic \f7 together with \o7 engineer \f7 for the first time? America. How about \o7 traffic cop, traffic ticket \f7 and \o7 traffic court? \f7 America again.
That's only natural, experts say, from the nation with the world's highest number of cars per capita. In 1990, there was a car for every 1.8 Americans. Second place belonged to Iceland, where each car was split between two whole Icelanders.
"As the need arises, we tend to form words that suit our purposes. People look around, and there's no word that fits," said Bruce Fraser, professor of linguistics at Boston University. "The British are perhaps more reticent about making up new words. We're not above making up new words here. It's a national pastime."
In some cases, however, terms exist in the queen's English that Americans somewhere along the line decide to ignore.
Take the \o7 trunk-\f7 vs.-\o7 boot \f7 dichotomy. The British used \o7 boot \f7 as long ago as 1781 to describe the luggage storage space in horse-drawn carriages; Dickens mentioned "the hind boot of all the red coaches" in "Nicholas Nickleby."
But at some point--it's hard to say exactly when--the U.S. adopted \o7 trunk\f7 .
The same thing happened with the other end of the car. "What we call the hood . . . is a bonnet" in the mother country, the U.S. War Department's "Short Guide to Great Britain" (1942) explained.
And anyone who has journeyed to London knows that their \o7 underground \f7 is our subway, their \o7 car parks \f7 our parking lots, their \o7 coaches \f7 our long-distance buses.
So why the differences?
It may have something to do with history, a product of the same rebellious spirit that made the 13 colonies thumb their noses at George III in 1776.
"Noah Webster went to school right at the time of the American Revolution," USC linguistics professor Edward Finegan said. "When he wrote his dictionary, he was very, very keen on trying to generate a separate idea of an American language . . . in the same way that he wanted America to be free of the Brits."
Speaking of \o7 free, \f7 are freeways so named because they don't cost us anything to use? After all, in other parts of the country, especially the East Coast, they're usually called turnpikes, expressways or highways--and they often charge tolls.
But Caltrans spokesman Russell Snyder dismisses the "freeway means free" idea. Instead, the term has to do with the type of thoroughfare it is--in this case, one without intersections or stoplights to impede speedy progress at 55 m.p.h. or more.
Which is why they don't allow pedestrians on freeways. You'd have to be pretty foolish to risk ambling along or crossing a freeway on foot, no smarter than a jay ("a stupid or silly person; a simpleton," according to the OED).
In short, you'd have to be a\o7 jaywalker.\f7