Cars, carts and chariots

Last week I was told that the English word car originally comes from the Irish word carr (donkey cart). Apparently when cars came to Ireland Irish speakers thought it was better to come up with a new word for them than to name them after the humble donkey cart, so the term gluaisteán (‘moving thing’) was coined. I hadn’t heard about this before so thought I’d check it.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the English word car has been used to refer to a wheeled vehicle since 1300 and comes from the Old Northern French word carre, from the Latin carrum/carrus, which originally referred to a two-wheeled Celtic war chariot, from the Gaulish word karros, from the Proto-Indo-European word *krsos, from the root *kers- (to run).

There are related words in Welsh carr (cart, wagon), and in Breton: karr (chariot, cart), in Cornish: karr (car), in Manx: carr (car), in Spanish and Italian: carro (cart, wagon) and probably in other languages.

The word chariot comes from the same root as car, but cart probably comes from the Old Norse word kart-r (cart), according to the OED.

Another vehicle-related word we discussed last week is carbad (chariot), from the Old Irish carpat (war-chariot, waggon). It is related to the Welsh cerbyd (vehicle, car, carriage, coach), the Old Breton cerpit, the Gaulish carpentoracte, from the Latin corbis (basket), from carpentum (two wheeled chariot), which was probably borrowed from Gaulish. The root idea is ‘wicker’, referring to the basket character of the body of these chariots.

2 thoughts on “Cars, carts and chariots

  1. English also ultimately gets ‘career’ from the same root. A cart is carri in Occitan, and a way made for carts was a carrièra, now used to mean a street. (A road in general is un camin.)

    French adopted the word as carrière, and English took it over in turn as ‘career’, with the usage changing over time to mean ‘travel at high speed’ as a verb and ‘working life’, as a noun.

  2. It’s much the same in Japanese– 車 kuruma means car or vehicle, but originally meant “cart” and uses the Chinese character for cart.

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