Leaders in the U.S. House of Representative recently reached an agreement on a plan that would award vouchers of up to $4,500 to car owners who trade in older vehicles for more fuel-efficient models. The proposed legislation has a nickname that is memorably alliterative: "Cash for Clunkers." How did clunker become the favored American word for cars that are past their prime?
The "cash for clunkers" legislation currently before Congress owes its roots to a proposal floated by the administration of Bush the Elder back in 1992. The idea, then as now, is to get older gas guzzlers off the road for the environmental benefits. And by making the owners of "clunkers" eligible for vouchers to buy new cars, the hope is that the auto industry would receive a much-needed boost of consumer spending. A similar program has succeeded in Germany, where car sales have recently rebounded sharply.
The word clunker is richly evocative of the noises — the clunks — that typify old, dilapidated cars. It shares in this automotive onomatopoeia (automatopoeia?) with other epithets like rattler or rattle trap. And it also rhymes with junker, which — along with junkheap — suggests even more serious deterioration, referring to cars that are beyond repair and ready for the scrapyard.
Junker and clunker date back to the 1930s, when a critical mass of rattling wrecks were gracing American roadways. These were preceded by older terms for broken-down cars, like flivver, tin lizzie, crate, and jalopy. The last of these is attested from the mid-'20s, originally spelled in many different ways: jaloopy, jalupie, jaloppy, jaloppi, joloppy, and so forth. Despite these many variants, the origins of jalopy remain unknown. Some have suggested a connection to the Mexican town of Jalapa (famous for its jalapeño peppers), where scrapped American cars were supposedly sent.
Junkers and clunkers were available terms by the time Walter Winchell wrote in his syndicated "On Broadway" column in April 1936 about the meaning of the word he spelled jollopy:
Regarding the word "jollopy" which a Mirror editorial writer recently wondered about. He said: "What's it really mean?" A Detroit man says jollopy means an old car, junkers, old hacks, rattlers, clunkers. They are the headaches of the auto dealer.
The following year, on October 5, 1937, the Los Angeles Times reported on a "midget car" festival called "the carnival of the clunkers": "the small car jockeys ... will all be thrown together in absolutely strange cars, and will not have helpful advice of the great mechanics and master minds of the game available." And on March 5, 1939, the Daily Northwestern of Oshkosh, Wisconsin announced that the local auto dealers' association was arranging a bonfire of old wrecks, preceded by a parade: "Some of the 'old clunkers' will be dragged through the streets followed by new cars featuring all of the latest safety gadgets."
During World War II, clunker came to refer to outmoded military vehicles like planes and ships. As the Chicago Tribune observed on August 2, 1944, naval clunkers served an important role in the war effort: "Naturally the old clunkers, the 1914 battleships, four stacker destroyers, and other obsolete craft that have served so valiantly in this war, will go to the scrapping yards when it is over, but a tremendous force of modern ships will remain."
In the postwar era, automotive clunkers and junkers persisted, becoming firmly entrenched in the lingo of used car dealers. Sometimes clunkers and junkers were lumped together: a used car ad in the Mason City, Iowa Globe-Gazette of Oct. 8, 1949 promised, "No junkers, no clunkers." But most of the time, clunkers were considered a cut above irredeemable junkers: a Mar. 3, 1950 ad in the Lima, Ohio News reads, "Good Old Cars: Clunkers But Not Junkers."
An early hint of "clunker" legislation can be found in a January 19, 1951 article in the Chicago Tribune, discussing a request by the National Used Car Dealer's Association for the Federal Reserve to ease credit restrictions on car sales. "Many prospective buyers of used cars are forced to turn to cars nine to 12 years old, 'clunkers' in the jargon of the trade, that will soon break down or require constant, costly repairs to keep them running," the Tribune reported.
Now, more than half a century later, we're still talking about used car owners and their clunkers. Maybe it's time to turn to some new vocabulary for old rides. What's your favorite contemporary term for a car that has fallen into disrepair?