Translation, metonymy and motors

Yesterday Streetsblog.net featured a Copenhagenize post about “Demotorization as a lifestyle choice.” Blogger Mikael was particularly enamored of the word “demotorization” used by Associated Press business writer Yuri Kageyama in January to describe a trend where “many twenty-somethings in Japan aren’t interested in owning a car today.”

I wholeheartedly approve of this trend, and I get the feeling it’s happening here in the US as well, although maybe not enough to be noticed. (My mother tells me that my grandfather bought the first mass-market Japanese car sold in the US, for what it’s worth.) I want to pick a few nits with the word “demotorization.”

Kageyama is actually stretching the truth when she says that this is “A lifestyle choice automakers are calling “demotorization.” Newsweek’s Akiko Kashiwagi tells us that they’re actually calling it “車離れ”, pronounced “benare.” I don’t know much Japanese, but it looks like a more literal translation is simply “moving away from cars.” The word “demotorization” is a coinage of Kageyama, who describes herself as a poet first and a writer second.

Kageyama was building on metonymy, a process where words can stand for things that they’re associated with; a commonly given example is of a waitress who tells her colleague, “The ham sandwich at table 12 just spilled soup all over himself.” In that example, the ham sandwich was standing in for the customer who had ordered it. In the US, motors and other car parts often stand for the entire cars, and so do roads and streets. In coining the term “demotorization,” Kageyama was building on the common metonymic use of “motor” to refer to cars.

I’m all for poetry in journalism, but weird things happen when you negate metonyms. I’ve just read Frommers Great Escapes from NYC Without Wheels, and I have to tell you that all of these escapes in fact involve wheels. Similarly, although Mikael posted a video of cycling in Japan, I think it’s fair to assume that most of the twenty-somethings in question will still be taking motorized trains and buses. I don’t think the distinction is academic, because while I can imagine a technologically advanced/safe/comfortable society without private cars, I have much more difficulty imagining one without motors. When I first read Mikael’s post, I was genuinely confused as to whether these Japanese twenty-somethings were giving up all motors, or just those in private cars.

I think Kageyama’s main purpose in coining the word “demotorization” was to tell us that her fellow Japanese have coined a term for this trend, and Mikael clearly felt the need for such a term. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s a great hunger out there for a nice short word for this concept. Getting people out of their cars is a widely shared goal of environmentalists around the world, but all we have in English to accurately describe it are clumsy multi-word phrases. With all due respect to the poet, I’d like to see a word that doesn’t imply giving up motors. Any suggestions?

grvsmth (Author)


  1. nathan_h

    I don’t think any invented word will meet the linguistic standards you’ve set! Even ‘automobile’ includes bicycles if the term is deconstructed, no? I like to throw around ‘post-car’, some people like ‘carfree’, but neither describes exactly the concept that ‘demotorization’ tries to.

  2. BruceMcF

    Motorists are car drivers … not bus riders or rail passengers. And between demotoristification and demotorisation, I think demotorisation wins.

  3. Peter Smith

    i’ve seen the word ‘motorization’ around in some older English books/reports — ‘the motorization of american cities’, etc.

    to me, ‘motor’ is synonymous with automobiles, so ‘demotorization’ seems fine.

  4. grvsmth

    Good points all. Nathan, I agree that often people don’t think of the original meaning (in your example, “auto” + “mobile” = “self-propelled”), and Bruce, “demotoristification” is a yucky word. Peter is right that “motorization” has historically meant the opposite of what Kageyama intends with “demotorization.”

    However, “motorization” hasn’t fossilized the way that “automobile” has, and if we can’t come up with something that sounds as nice as “demotorization” I won’t push the issue. Finally, as I said in my post, weird things happen when you negate metonyms, and “demotorization” is an example of this.

    Maybe someone will eventually come up with a better word. In the meantime, we can talk about the goals rather than the process: “desprawling” (I just googled it and was not surprised to see that I’m not the first), “decongesting,” “clearing the air,” “safer streets,” and so on.

    And if people want to use “demotorize,” who am I to try to stop them? I just hope everyone will keep in mind that Some Motors are Good.

  5. BruceMcF

    There is also the Corporate reading of “Motor”, where demotorization can be read as “outgrowing the idea that What Is Good for General Motors is Good for the US”

Leave a Reply