The Origin of the Word ‘Chauffeur’ in Luxury Limo Hire

Send the stoker round with the car”.

No, it doesn’t sound quite right does it? You can’t really imagine those words being uttered by the local nobility in their stately homes but in effect, that’s what they’re saying — albeit in French.

Sound ridiculous? Well, it’s not or at least it isn’t once you understand the history.

The First Cars

Historians of the automobile like to argue furiously about what was the first ‘true’ car.

Incredibly, the first steam powered cars go back to mid-18th century France. In fact, their inventor managed to go down in history as the first person to crash an independently-powered car in 1771 (into a brick wall). This ‘French connection’ though is important in the later story.

In the UK between1820–1840 there were steam-powered buses on the roads, though these fell out of favour as the railways developed.

So, there is a long history here that goes back way before the founding fathers such as Carl Benz, who developed the first petrol/gasoline engine back in the 1870s.

One important aspect of those very early steam cars though was that they had to be fuelled (more correctly ‘stoked’) with wood or coal to heat their boilers. This was never a clean or glamorous job though the stoker evolved, over time, into the person who also controlled the vehicle. To put it another way, the stoker had become the driver as well. In fact, at that early period, he was almost always also the main mechanic and engineer too.

The French Legacy

When reading up on the history of cars, it’s commonplace to see these early steam vehicles often ignored and much emphasis given to German and later British and US front-running.

That’s a pity because the contributory role of French innovation from the earliest days in the 18th century right up through the 20th was quite substantial.

So, many French motoring terms were adopted for use in English including Garage, Tonneau (cover) and Coupé etc. One such word borrowed was the French word for ‘Stoker’, which was, you guessed it, ‘Chauffeur’. Apart from anything else, the language just sounded better to the ears of the Upper Classes (the only people that could afford early cars) than workaday English.

Now it’s true that by the late 19th century nobody was stoking cars any longer but ‘chauffeur’, by virtue of sounding so much posher than ‘stoker’, just stuck. It was also much more marketable for luxury limo hire companies to say their chauffeurs were the best around than to say “our stokers are the best around”!

Heating Up

The final connection relates to the French language.

The verb Chauffer in French can mean to ‘heat up’ or ‘to stoke’, with the linkages between stoking and heat generation being clear. Even though the engineers by the late 19th century had done away with wood and coal stoking due to combustible liquid fuels, unfortunately, they’d forgotten to invent a way of igniting said fuels to begin with.

So, on very early ‘true’ cars, the ignition took place by manually heating rods in the engine which then ignited the fuel when starting. This was the Chauffeur’s job which considering the origin of the job title, seems strangely appropriate!

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