Coincidence or Correlation?

MAY/JUNE 2014: AS WE SEE IT

by George Brown Jr.

What caught my attention that afternoon was the word “Rogue”: someone dishonest, a nonconformist or playfully mischievous. The word shone out in bright chrome letters on the back of the SUV stopped in front of my car.

While I waited for the traffic light to change, I thought “Rogue” was an apt name for the way the SUV had been driven the past few blocks. Perhaps in a hurry to get to an appointment, the driver had been tailgating and then abruptly changing lanes—sometimes without using a turn signal. (I’ll skip over my history of intolerance of other drivers’ behavior and defense of my own driving habits.)

The incident sparked some reflection. Are the names of other car models— “Avenger,” “Brat” and “Challenger”; “Fury” and “Rampage”; “Diablo,” “Prowler” and “Vanquish”—descriptive of reckless or aggressive driving that many of us have witnessed now and then? I wondered if there was a connection between these names and driver behaviors.

Consider the saying “Words create worlds.” Could the apparent increase in incidents of road rage be related to driving an Avenger, Fury or Vanquish? Recently in one Michigan county a driver, uncomfortable with how closely the car behind was following, pulled into a parking lot to get out of the way. The second driver pulled in alongside, got out and began shooting at the driver in the other car. Defending himself and the two passengers riding with him, that driver returned fire with his own gun. When the shooting stopped, both drivers lay dead.

Of course, I’m not claiming that driving a Chevrolet Beretta or a Chrysler Crossfire will result in gunfire. But I am inviting us to think about how the names automobile manufacturers give their products may evoke expectations, create connections and validate values that conflict with expectations, relationships and values shaped by the gospel.

My cursory survey of the names of cars, SUVs and pickup trucks yielded two dozen names. Because the list included both recent and older models, I wondered how much the increasingly aggressive-sounding names have contributed to the present lack of civility or growing tolerance of violence in our culture. Could an automobile’s name infl uence behavior at some unconscious level? Perhaps it is the other way around: A more violent and less civil society inspires the use of more aggressive names for the vehicles we own and drive.

Michael Warren once raised the question about the human imagination behind motion pictures and other creative works. He might well have asked, “What is the human imagination behind the names given to automobiles, SUVs and pickup trucks?” I was struck by which manufacturers came up with the names in my unscientific survey: Aston Martin “Vanquish,” Buick “Roadmaster,” Chrysler “Avenger,” Dodge “Rampage,” Lamborgini “Diablo,” and Subaru “Brat.”

“Tahoe,” “Sierra,” and “Malibu” evoke diff erent associations, as do names such as “Civic” and “Escape.” If words create worlds, I wonder what sort of world automakers are helping to create.

George Brown Jr. is G.W. and Eddie Haworth professor emeritus of Christian education, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Mich.

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