Etymology of the Day: Chauffeur

Do chauffeurs ever chafe at—or from—the long days spent behind the steering wheel? Etymologically they do, at least.

Chauffeurs: in the hot seat? (Pixabay)


In the 1890s, English borrowed chauffeur, as you probably guessed, from French, where the word literally means “one who makes it hot.” The French verb chauffer, “to make hot,” comes from the Latin calefacere, joining calere (“to heat,” source of calorie) and facere (“to do,” source of fact and its innumerable kin).

Back in the late 14th century, English also borrowed chauffer: It became our word chafe, originally meaning “to heat,” both literally and figuratively. Now, chafe is used for physical abrasions caused by rubbing (friction causes heat) as well as states of annoyance and frustration (as if inflamed).

French first used chauffeur of workers who tended the fires in forges in the 17th century. With the advent of steam engines to power boats and trains in the 19th century, chauffeur was extended to “fireman” or “stoker,” who managed the fire which heats the water whose steam makes the vehicle move.

Steam engine technology was also used in some early cars, whose burning fuel the drivers–or chauffeurs, as the French came to call them—had to mind. Steam technology died off in automobiles in the early 20th century, but chauffeur is still running, if in its specialized sense. In Modern French, a chauffeur can name a bus or taxi driver—professionals, similar to the word’s English descendent.

m ∫ r ∫

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