Feature: Lost Lingo

February 1, 2012

Trushutterstock_50733394cker talk is becoming a thing of the past

Language, in general, is becoming more unpredictable every day. Just try keeping up with a variety of modern lingo changing at warp speed. And if you’re like me, you once considered the ancient Tower of Babel the most intimidating prospect in language confusion.

But there’s an important aspect of the American lingo that is quickly fading from our repertoire.  Historically part and parcel, it’s the unique lingo and jargon of the truck driver.

Truckers have always been creative with their speech and they often borrowed from the admired professions of cowboy, sailor, farmer, and railroader, among others. Consider the phrase pour on the coal, a clear reference to a rail fireman feeding coal into the firebox of a locomotive then adding water to create steam power. But for the trucker, the phrase means bearing down on the accelerator (not an action we necessarily advocate).

“That some part of the trucker’s heritage is derived from his wanderlusting cousins is most significantly attested to by his vocabulary. Mysterious as a strange tongue and varied as the geographical regions of the United States, the trucker’s language is a coalescence of the familiar and the foreign.” (Roach, 1971)

So pour em’ a cup of strong hundred mile coffee for a two hour ride then throw out the anchor by applying the brakes. Maybe a truck driver is training to be an Eskimo by riding with the windows open in cold weather in a kidney-buster, a rough riding tractor.

Mid twentieth-century, the American Trucking Associations sought to capture the essence of the trucker’s lingo by publishing the Truck Drivers Dictionary.  “This language, coined by the drivers, gives a ‘picture’ description of a particular trucking job or piece of equipment. Often, a rather involved process or complicated situation is summed up in one word. For instance, the word ‘spotter’ refers to a driver who parks vehicles at the terminal or sometimes refers to supervisors who observe and record driver activities on the road.”

“Oh, the things we said back then”, remembers Charles Whorley of Nashville who recently retired from truck driving after more than forty years on the road. His diverse driving career included hauling grain, livestock, cement, and general cargo, so he’s seen and heard it all; he remembers “We called a weigh station a chicken house. If a trucker came upon a slow moving pick-up truck he called it a country Cadillac and when you lost a tire while driving, you’d lost one of your tennis shoes.”

But when he reflects upon the kind of camaraderie that sparked the inventive quality of trucker lingo, Mr. Whorley believes that “The cell phone has taken it away”.

Of course, the cell phone is just one factor contributing to the decline of creative trucker lingo, but it isn’t the only factor. Another contributor is a certain austerity ushered in with Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) the FMCSA safety measurement system. But you shouldn’t find fault in a noble measure that “is working to further reduce commercial motor vehicle (CMV) crashes, fatalities, and injuries on our nation’s highways.” (CSA:Compliance, Safety, Accountability, 2011)

In their down time, social media, including Facebook and driver blogs like Life On the Road-a trucking news blog written by industry drivers-offer truck drivers a more main stream outlet for creative speech and also their own audio/visual media productions. Here they can make connections that are not necessarily limited to the industry.

“The newer drivers don’t use the lingo; they just pick up the CB radio and talk normal”, says Danny Bennett who’s been a truck driver for close to twenty years. He continues with “Some of the older drivers still use it and you can usually understand what they mean.”

But is truck driver lingo necessarily lost to the ages or Gone 10-7(permanently dead, deceased)? Maybe it’s just heading for a hole (Giving advance notice of going into a low spot for communications) with a rally on the horizon.


Sources and Citations-

Truck Drivers Dictionary. (1960). Washington DC: American Trucking Association.

CSA:Compliance, Safety, Accountability. (2011, December 5). Retrieved from CSA: http://csa.fmcsa.dot.gov

Roach, J. G. (1971). Diesel Smoke & Dangerous Curves: Folklore of the Trucking Industry. In Hunters and Healers (pp. 45-53). Austin: Texas Folklore Society.