Friday False Friends 22: car

Quill feather

car (noun) ‘motor-car, (US) also ‘train carriage or tram’

The modern vehicular senses date from the 19th-century, so ‘mechanical’ nuances must be carefully avoided whenever we hear the word in Shakespeare. When the word first came into the language, from Latin via French in the 14th century, it had a wide range of usage, referring to any wheeled vehicle – chariots, trucks, carts, wagons, and the like. But from the 16th century, the dominant usage in literature was ‘chariot’, often referring to the conveyance of the sun-god, variously named as Phoebus or Phaethon. We find this reference, for example, in Antony and Cleopatra (IV.viii.29), Cymbeline (V.v.191), Richard III (V.iii.20), and twice in Henry VI Part 3 (II.vi.13, IV.vii.79). Bottom declaims about ‘Phibbus’ car’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I.ii.31). And Sonnet 7 (line 9) talks of the sun’s ‘weary car’ at the end of the day. But the earlier general sense also appears, referring to an earthly carriage, when Exeter talks about ‘captives bound to a triumphant car’ (Henry VI Part 1, I.i.22) and Fabian exhorts Sir Toby to be quiet: ‘Though our silence be drawn from us with cares, yet peace!’ (Twelfth Night, II.v.63).

David Crystal is a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and is the co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.

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