Origins of the word Chauffeur

Chauffeur beside vintage car

Today, we take the word “chauffeur” to identify a chap behind the wheel of a posh car, probably employed or hired to drive a client. He may, or may not, be wearing a peaked hat, dark suit and sport a white pair of gloves. Nowadays, the hat and gloves would be a rarity. But he should always be well groomed. But let’s go back and see what history tells us about the origins of the word “chauffeur”.

The timeline for the word chauffeur starts around 1896, from the French term for “stoker”, because railroad and sea vessels were steam-powered and required the driver to stoke the engine. By 1902, the earliest automobiles, like their counterparts, also relied on steam. Here then, comes the first nod towards a professional automobile driver. And the term stuck.

Did you know? A woman employed to drive a passenger motor vehicle is a chauffeuse.

Early petrol and gasoline-powered motor cars, before the advent of electric ignition, were ignited by ‘hot tubes’ in the cylinder head, which had to be pre-heated before the engine would start. Hence the term chauffeur in this context means something like: “heater-upper”. The chauffeur would prime the hot tubes at the start of a journey, after which the natural compression cycle of the engine would keep them at the correct temperature. The chauffeur also maintained the car, including routine maintenance and cleaning, and had to be a skilled mechanic to deal with breakdowns and tyre punctures en-route, which were very common in the earliest years of the automobile.

Only the very wealthy could afford the first automobiles, and they generally employed chauffeurs rather than driving themselves. But harking back to a January 19, 1902 letter to the editor of the New York Times, (by a Mr Calvin Thomas), citing them and the Evening Standard saying “is this the best we can do with the resources of Shakespeare’s language. The word is a bad importation!”. Quite. But it’s better than “stoker” or “motorman”. Don’t mention the word driver – you’ll get knocked over in our yard…

A 1906 article, again in The New York Times reported that “the chauffeur problem to-day is one of the most serious that the automobilist has to deal with”, and complained that “young men of no particular ability, who have been earning from $10 to $12 a week, are suddenly elevated to salaried positions paying from $25 to $50” and recommended the re-training of existing coach driver. So it was good money!

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