words: CAR

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The Independent Online
CAR-WORSHIP, an established English rite, can be observed most Sunday mornings in our suburbs, when the revered object is taken from its shrine and lustrated to keep it from pollution while unbelievers are in church. It was not until last week that the two cults merged and, in a notable ecumenical gesture, cars were driven into Coventry Cathedral for a thanksgiving ceremony.

In classical times it was not the car itself that was adored, but the person riding in it. Car which dates at least from Chaucer's day, was the word English Renaissance poets used when writing about the splendidly decked machines that carried Roman gods and emperors in triumphal processions. (The Latin word is currus.) The stars, too, were accustomed to going by car - "Phoebus' car" was poetic diction for the sun. This was the vehicle in which, according to the legend, the lad Phaethon lost control when taking dad's car for a run; Ovid says its tyres were of gold, its spokes silver. Chariot was a rather more prosaic word for the same thing. Facetious people who call their cars their chariots should be told that they are reverting to what was, if anything, the less romantic word.

Now the car has become a precision affair, it's a shame the words for it remain so muddled. When Americans talk about a car they probably (but not so often now) mean what the British call a carriage but also call a coach, which is also a sort of bus. In the modern car's early days car was too vague, so we called it an automobile like the Americans, or an autocar, which made most sense. If there is indeed to be a rapprochement between Church and car, perhaps we should get the liturgists on to it. Meanwhile last week's holy autocade gives new significance to the expression "due for a service".

Nicholas Bagnall