Today, if you have a moment to pause in slapping your valet, you should take a moment to think about the names you call your help. Not the horrible ones you make up– the actual titles. Like ‘chauffeur.’ Why do we call the person who drives our car for us that odd-sounding French word? And how does that word hint at the secret history of cars?
For right now, let’s just accept that the word is of French origin. The French word to drive is conduire, as in “Je conduisais mes Deux Chevaux dans un lac,” which means “I drove my 2CV into a lake.”
The verb conduire, of course, is not the origin of the word chauffeur. The word chauffeur actually is derived from the French word ‘chaud,’ which means hot, or even more so, the French word “chauffer” which means “to heat.”
So, why does the word that means “someone who drives my car for me,” derive from a French word that means “to heat?” To understand why, you have to think about what very, very early cars were like, and forget some of the misinformation you may have been fed about the origin of cars by a certain company.
You see, automobiles go way back before Karl Benz and his gas-powered 1886 Patent-Motorwagen. Before Benz’ success with gasoline, there were still cars, but most of them tended to be steam-powered, especially in the very early years of motoring in the early to mid/late 1800s. Really, steam was the predominant motive source for a car from, oh, 1769 to 1880 or so, and there were more cars around than you might think.
Operating these vehicles often took more than one person, and one of the jobs involved in running a steam car was always to keep the boiler fires going. To, if you will, heat that water to make steam. See where I’m headed?
For example, look at this very early car, the 1860 Rickett Steam Car – possibly the first car to be advertised, and sold to a private buyer. There’s room for three people up front, one steering and doing the job we’d now most likely call “driving,” but look out back there – see that guy standing on that little porch out back?
That’s the chauffeur. He’s feeding fuel into the furnace, keeping the boiler going. That’s the job that gave the name to “chauffeur.”
I suppose that’s the name that stuck for the professional who managed the operation of the car because, in these early cars, that was the most technical position; the owner could steer and regulate the speed in relative cleanliness and comfort. It was that position at the back that was the dirty job of a hired hand.
Now, knowing all this, there still may be one question you have: why French? Why did we adapt a French word for this position? Most of the really early automobiles were British, and the first real ‘boom’ of automobiles happened with British Omnibuses in the 1830s. So why don’t we call a hired driver a “stoker” or something?
I haven’t seen any real theories about this online or otherwise, but I have a sort of pet theory of my own. I think the reason the French got to name this position has to do with timing and one particular builder of early steam cars.
The word seems to have come into use in the later 1800s – some sources peg it as late as 1895. I think the French got this honor because just that time, one of the only companies that produced steam cars in any quantity was a French firm.
The company was the one started by Amédée Bollée. Bollée was very likely the first to produce automobiles in any quantity for sale: he built 50 copies of La Mancelle (which did require a coal-tending chauffeur) back in 1878. In an era when most automobiles were one-offs, 50 is a lot of cars, and I believe these were the cars that first popularized the title of chauffeur.
There you go. Now you can stop wondering why that person you whack with your cane who drives your car is called what he (or she’s) called. Put your energy into the cane-whacking, not the wondering.