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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

SUV

(1990’s | advertese)

The first use of “sport utility vehicle” that shows up in LexisNexis appears on May 24, 1978 in an Associated Press story as the answer to a riddle: “What gets lousy gas mileage and carries kids to school, the rich to the country club, hunters through fields and a major American corporation into the black? A phenomenally popular plaything best described as half-truck, half-station wagon.” (“Sports utility vehicle” was a variant that disappeared by the end of the eighties; “sport” and “utility” were hyphenated occasionally. “Sports vehicles” and “utility vehicles” both were recognized categories at that time, so the coinage is not revolutionary.) The earliest use of “SUV” I found appeared in Adweek, April 7, 1986, where it is included in parentheses as an alternative to the spelled-out phrase and repeated several times. If you have an earlier citation, send it in. “Sport utility vehicle” was ordinary in automotive circles by 1990, and both it and “SUV” had roared into the mainstream lexicon by the middle of the decade.

Some on-line historians trace the noble lineage of the sport utility vehicle much further back: the first Chevrolet Suburban (1935) is one possible ancestor (the generic term then was “carryall”), or maybe the early civilian Jeeps, the Willys-Overland Jeep Station Wagon from the late 1940’s, or even Harley Earl’s El Kineño. Some point to the Jeep Wagoneer (1963); or even the Jeep Cherokee (1983). In the trade press, the Dodge Ramcharger and Plymouth Trailduster bore the name as early as 1981; the Chevy S-10 Blazer, Ford Bronco, and Ford Explorer were all so called by the mid-1980’s. I recall that SUV’s became thick on the roads in the early 1990’s, but I wasn’t driving much in those years and it may have been earlier.

They sure became popular in a hurry, didn’t they? SUV’s and minivans rose at about the same time. (The word “minivan” starts to appear earlier, but not as a consumer vehicle so much as a small bus.) I can’t think of any developments in the automotive market since then that have been remotely comparable in terms of driving habits and preferences. Hybrids and mini-cars have made a few inroads in the last decade but had nowhere near the impact of the SUV and minivan invasion that began thirty years ago. The two had widely different cultural significances, of course. The SUV was for the adventurer, tough, versatile, and independent, while the minivan was Mom’s car, suitable for hauling the kids around. Real men didn’t drive minivans, although real women could and did drive SUV’s. One thing they had in common was lousy gas mileage — a mere ten years after a crippling energy crisis, the nation embraced a new generation of gas-guzzlers. And while a spike in gas prices still has the power to curtail SUV sales, they always bounce back.

Early in the game, it became clear that most SUV owners weren’t interested in off-road driving and actually spent most of their time on the interstate, so many models shed their more rugged features and increased the size of their cupholders. I propose that such models be rechristened “sport futility vehicles.” If you bought your SUV to make sure you’d get the better of a crash or to take pride in America’s disdain for energy conservation, how about “sport hostility vehicle”?

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