Late- model maniacs Essay: Aggressive driving should not surprise us in an age when in-your-face car names are the rage.

November 03, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

With the end-of-year car sales just getting under way, from the Ritchie Highway to the York Road corridor, thoughts incline naturally toward the current uproar over aggressive driving. Nobody should be surprised by all this. It's a wonder it didn't start a long time ago. It's a wonder it's not worse.

It's perfectly understandable.

Who wouldn't be overbearing at the wheel of a Ram Charger? How do you exercise restraint in cars with carnivorous names like Cougar or Jaguar?

Imagine naming an automobile after a handgun: Beretta. Or other deadly weapons: Cutlasses and LeSabres.

Why give an automobile a name that encourages a state of mind best avoided on the interstate, like Fury? Why not just name it Road Rage and be up to date? Or maybe something even more direct, like this: 1998 Ford Psychotic! Complete with twin overhead cams, chrome wheel-covers, optional forward-mounted machine guns!

Some people think the names given to children affect their comportment as they grow up: Mikes act like Mikes, Spikes act like Spikes, and Harolds? Well, Harolds usually behave.

There is no proof of this, but according to Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays, authors of "The Language of Names," the Puritans believed it. Being ignorant of the power of gene pools, they chose biblical names for their children in the expectation the kids would turn out like their namesakes.

Under this theory, had Mrs. Hickok named her child Leslie when he was born in 1837, he probably wouldn't have come to a violent end in 1876.

Can you imagine a "Wild Leslie" Hickok? (Actually, she baptized him James.)

But back to cars, and the rationale -- if there is one -- behind all those pugnacious names.

Maryland's Paul Dickson, who wrote a book titled "What's in a Name?," discourages suggestions it has to do with anything insidious like subliminal manipulation. For him the motive is simple, old-fashioned greed.

"I think it was just to sell cars," he said. "Somebody perceived there was something gallant or interesting in these kinds of names."

Gallant? What's gallant about the Spoiler? Or the Marauder?

These model names, favored by Buick's marketers, were among many similar ones produced by the automotive industry in the late 1950s and early '60s. The nomenclature of hostility ruled the minds of Detroit's big thinkers in those years. Many of these models are still on the road, still roaring off the assembly line.

Before that, car names were devised with more noble thoughts in mind: benevolence, hope for the future, all that stuff. The Galaxies, Polaras and Satellites of the late '50s alluded to the elevated sentiments shared by ordinary people all across the country as the Space Age dawned. Even today, there are cars whose names refer to more benign states of affairs or of mind: Civics, Accords, Escorts, even Cavaliers (for courtesy).

The temptation to reach for the combative name, of course, was always there. It has popped up now and again as long as there have been cars on our roads. Perhaps the most egregious example was the Studebaker Dictator, produced from the late 1920s to the late 1930s.

"They killed it because of what was going on on Europe," said Dickson -- all that messy stuff that preceded World War II.

The current crop of overweight, four-wheel-drive behemoths, described as "sports utility vehicles," carry names of a different sort. They are obviously designed to induce fantasies of freedom and escape to rough, wild places -- but in perfect comfort and safety. These names are not innocuous. They sow the seeds of frustration, which grow well in soil fertilized by unfulfilled promises.

If for the most part all you do is drive to and from your job, or back and forth around a crowded beltway to the mall, you must at some point realize your Pathfinder, your Safari, your Explorer or Expedition or Land Rover, or whatever, is under-used. There's all that power necessarily held in check because there's no place, or precious few places, to release it -- no convenient craggy mountain passes to soar over, no rugged landscapes of breathtaking beauty to speed through.

No, for the most part this is how the routine goes: You climb in, turn the key, flick on the full climate control and roll out into traffic. Destination? Kmart.

No wonder there is so much truculence out on the beltway, so many fingers tap-tap-tapping impatiently on steering wheels.

This assumes, of course, that the names of the cars that people drive actually do affect their behavior. It's not an utterly bankrupt assumption. An 18-year-old boy driving a Rodeo seems likely to be more cowboy rowdy than another kid in a sedate Honda Accord.

Maybe, then, in the interest of highway peace and the resuscitation of the expired idea of road courtesy, car companies might reconsider their nomenclature strategy for next year. How about a car called, say, Tranquillity? Or Harmony?

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