Boot or Trunk? Hood or Bonnet?

One of the strangest areas of difference between British and American English is that of cars. In many ways, the general differences between words in both main forms of English are small and superficial. Things like removing a U from a word like colour, or swapping an R and an E around at the end of a word. Other differences are based on old uses and forms of words, and are understandably caused by 200 years or so of drift. And there’s sports.

But cars are such a relatively new invention that it always seemed strange to me that American and British English would have such different words to refer to their different parts. Specifically why a boot in British English is a trunk in American English, and a bonnet is a hood.

Thinking about them, without doing any research, the uses of hood and bonnet aren’t too strange, as both basically mean the same thing. I’ll assume you’re familiar with a hood, and a bonnet is of course a wide-brimmed, dainty lady’s hat that’s tied under the chin. And if you think about it, a hood/bonnet on a car basically fulfils the function of a hood or a bonnet (in terms of clothing). They cover the engine, like they also cover our heads. An interesting suggestion I came across here is that the reason for the use of the more feminine bonnet in British influence is an influence from European languages. In many gendered languages such as French, the word for car is feminine (une voiture), and people are thus more likely to think of their cars as female and give them feminine names. Hood on the other hand is a no-nonsense gender-neutral word for Americans who have no time for such Old-World frivolity.

Boot and trunk are a little stranger though. Trunk makes sense: like a chest, it’s a place to store things. But a boot? That’s just something you wear on your feet, no? Yes, and that’s where the term comes from.

Maybe.

Around the beginning of the 17th century, carriages began to feature seats on the outside, on the side of the carriage. These became known as boots, and over time, they moved from the side of the carriage to the back, and became used more for storage than seating. Some consider that they were known as boots as that’s where you placed your boots, while others say it’s because they were shaped like a boot. Whatever the reason, it’s perhaps not too surprising that in the Old World we’d keep using a 400-year old word, whereas in the United States they were for the more logical trunk.

One old world from the time of carriages that has remained in use on both sides of the Atlantic though is dashboard. Originally it referred to a wooden board on the front of a carriage to prevent mud splashing on the driver when he’s dashing, and continues to be used to refer to the location of the instrument panels on a modern car, in a similar position. And while it doesn’t quite fulfil the same function (though you would get pretty muddy without a dashboard in your car) that’s also the case of the increasingly common use of the word: a home screen on some manner of screen-based electronic service, featuring a variety of options. It might seem normal to hear people talk about their Xbox dashboard, but considering the difference between it and the original use of the word, it’s in fact a fascinating example of the way words drift through different meanings.

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