Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Today in journalism history: Words, words, words

The fun-o-meter has been pegged over at "joyeaux" all week, so this anniversary hed from Dec. 14, 1941, didn't get posted as it should have. But it's still a fun little excursion into the world of hed words and how their conventional wisdom comes and goes.

If your first reaction is that "autoist" is a strange word, your second might well be that it's probably a pretty good one -- certainly as good as "cyclist" in the deck. And it is; enough people had the same idea early in the previous century that the OED has citations for "autoist" from 1903 and 1904. But why and when did it stop making sense? Did we abandon it before the general public did, or is it one of those gems like "mull" and "solon" that we're going to keep using until the last trumpet sounds, regardless of what sort of head-scratching we generate?

This hed is from the World's Greatest Newspaper, where "autoist" was common into the 1950s and not too unusual into the 1960s. "Autoist" seems to have died at the Trib's news desk in 1971,* though it returns as a crossword clue -- "Autoist's stopover," 5 spaces -- in mid-1976, and a 1985 editorial refers to "Mr. and Mrs. Average American Autoist."

Why so long? Was "autoist" a relic of Col. McCormick's own flavor of spelling reform -- the stylebook that gave us "photograf" and so much more? Hardly. It appears in Los Angeles Times heds as late as 1976 and an NYT hed from 1973. So -- I hear you cry -- what did things look like in Detroit?

Well, now we come full circle, because 88 years ago today -- Dec. 15, 1922 -- was the last recorded appearance of "autoist" in a Freep hed: "Drunken Autoist Jailed over Yule," in which some benighted westsider** gets 30 days in the clink "for driving his automobile while drunk." Thus baffled, I hand it over to you guys: Any "autoist" sightings or reasonable speculation about which chicken came before which egg? 

* The year Your Editor got his autoist license, if you're scoring along at home.
** Best coincidence yet: If you stand in my office and look across the freeway toward the south end of the football stadium, his address is a couple hundred yards past the stands. For what it's worth, he was busted on Chene, which isn't too far from the street where Language Czarina's mom was born, but the paper didn't give a more specific location.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

I suspect that it died because all Americans (with rare exceptions like yours truly) became "autoists", whereas we didn't all become "(bi)cyclists". So instead we reverted to using the word "driver", which is a role rather than a type of person.

12:31 AM, December 16, 2010  
Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

Yet motorist lives on. I wonder what the differences are between the adherents of motorism and autoism.

1:55 PM, December 16, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"Autoist" sounds like a psychiatric disorder.

7:28 PM, December 16, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

Hey, that's funny, I'm autoist too!

Yeah? What do you take for autoist?

Sometimes a Ritalin, sometimes a Calomel.

Oh, you mean chocolate calomel? I like them too, but ...

(Y'all should know that the capcha for this is "plaxid")

10:53 PM, December 16, 2010  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

I'm going for 'motel' on the crossword clue.

3:21 AM, December 17, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

What's kind of interesting is that we have motorists driving autos (or even automobiles), but not autoists or motorcars.

1:17 PM, December 17, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

"Autoist's stopover," a week later, was indeed "motel." Which has certainly outlasted both "autoist" and "motorcar."

11:40 PM, December 18, 2010  
Anonymous Signed said...

When I drive an automobile, I must be a "mobilist."

Since "cyclists" ride a "cycle" as pointed out in the links, that leaves me a bit confused as to which neat little box I fit into, depending on whether I'm on my biCYCLE or my motorCYCLE.

I suppose a pedestrian would be some sort of egoist because they don't operate anything but themselves.

Let's just share the road and stop worrying about who seems to be more deserving of it!

8:32 AM, December 19, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Actually, this n-gram plot suggest that motorist isn't so popular any more, which is good, because it confirms my prejudices that motorist smells of the musty mid-century.

10:42 AM, January 14, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Today, while reading "The Thinking Machine" (1905) I found a reference to an early speed trap, in a story called The Phantom Motor (not auto):

Even at the distance the rhythmical crackling-chug informed Special Constable Baker that it was a gasoline car, and the headlong swoop of the unblinking lights toward him made him instantly aware of the fact that the speed ordinance of Yarborough County was being a little more than broken - it was being obliterated.

Now the County of Yarborough was a wide expanse of summer estates and superbly kept roads, level as a floor and offered distracting temptations to the dangerous pastime of speeding. But against this was the fact that the county was particular about its speed laws, so particular in fact that had stationed half a hundred men upon its highways to abate the nuisance. Incidentally it had found that keeping record of the infractions of the law was an excellent source of income.

'Forty miles an hour if an inch,' remarked Baker to himself.

... He always remained on watch at the same place - at one end of a long stretch which autoists had unanimously dubbed The Trap. The Trap was singularly tempting - perfectly macadamized road bed lying between two tall stone walls with only enough of a sinuous twist in it to make each end invisible from the other. Another man, Special Constable Bowman, was stationed at the other end of The Trap and there was telephonic communication between the points, enabling the men to check each other and incidentally, if one failed to stop a car or get its number, the other would. That at least was the theory.

10:31 AM, March 16, 2011  
Blogger Rota Fortunae said...

Autoism is the philosophy that the drive-alone car trip is the only way to go someplace. It is a monomodal disorder characteristic of mid-to-late 20th century American civilization, and lingers on in most places, especially suburbia, into the 21st century. Land use and development, therefore, are often also autoistic, though many are unable to recognize the symptoms. Autoists are also often blinded by the speed, convenience, increasing gadgetry, and cocoon of self-regarding pleasures inside the auto.

It's a great word and deserves a renaissance!

7:47 PM, October 25, 2011  

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