I was in Italy for a few days recently, and near my hotel I noticed a sign indicating that autostop was not permitted. You might have figured out that autostop is the Italian word for hitchhiking.
Not only Italian, in fact, but many other languages feature the word autostop (or a slight variation) to mean hitchhiking. It’s a pretty logical word, and another interesting case of how widespread the use of English, and specifically the word stop, is in other languages.
And it makes sense that other languages wouldn’t use hitchhike. It’s not the easiest word to spell (two H’s in a row!), nor is its pronunciation simple (many languages don’t have words or syllables that begin with the H sound). And most importantly, its meaning isn’t the most obvious. Where does the word hitchhike come from?
The hike part is clear enough, referring to walking. You know, hiking. And hitch refers to fastening something to another object, usually by a hook. As in a hitch knot, or a hitching post, or getting hitched. The idea was that a hitchhiker would attach themselves to a moving vehicle in order to travel along with it.
Curiously though, hitch, like hike, can also refer to movement. Specifically, we can still use it to refer to a limp or hobbling movement. This comes from the Middle English icchen, meaning to move with a jerky movement. The connection with fastening/attaching might come from the idea of pulling up trousers quickly to fasten them.
But not every language uses autostop, or some variation on it. Others are related to the word lift, which of course isn’t that different to hitchhiking. The only difference generally being that we usually give a lift to someone we know. And like hitchhiking, the word lift, in this sense, has a practical, historical meaning. Before the arrival of cars, the person giving you a lift would likely have physically lifted you onto their horse, or into their carriage.