heavy machinery

Do not take cold and flu medications while operating this blog entry.

One of the "surprise hits" of the UK music charts around last Christmas was a folky song by Nizlopi. It's from the point of view of a five-year-old who feels safe and co{s/z}y while skipping school in order to ride around with his dad on a piece of heavy machinery. This was called the The JCB Song. My first thought about this song was "Well, that's not going to chart in America--no one would know what a JCB is." My second thought was "I'm feeling slightly queasy." My third thought was "Where can I find a sharp object to jam into my ears?" (Yes, it's a terribly sweet song. The charitable interpretation of my distaste for it is that I'm just too sweet to require more sweetness. I'm sure you can think of uncharitable interpretations on your own. Better Half has just suggested a few, but he can get his own blog if he wants to report them.)

Non-Britons must be listening to the JCB song, though, as there are people on the Internet asking what a JCB is. The (British) answers are often in the spirit of "it's a digger, duh! where have you been?" (So much for the stereotype of Britons as polite and proper.) JCB is a company name that's used generically to refer to any kind of big, yellow construction vehicle, typically the kind of bulldozer/backhoe thing pictured here. Incidentally, OED and BH say that backhoe is AmE, but that's what the British JCB company calls them.

Another piece of heavy machinery with a non-travel(l)ing name is the kanga hammer (heard recently at a lovely dinner party--thanks, Gill!). This is again based on a tradename (though I can't find a company website--are they still going?) and seems to be most used in Australian English, but it's unclear to me from the evidence on the web whether this is a specific type of (small) jackhammer, or something different from a jackhammer (as hinted at by the contrast with jackhammer in the second quotation):
A construction engineer offered me the use of his Kanga hammer, a small jack hammer, and after ten minutes of vibrating the rust the bolt loosened. -- Travel Through Cambodia on a Harley-Davidson by Peter Forwood

My hands are familiar with the steely hexagon of a crowbar, the distinction between the long handled and short handled shovel, the two blades of the pickaxe etcetera. I recall the jackhammer and kanga-hammer, the ramset nailgun, the wheelbarrow of treacherously sloppy cement and the narrow scaffolding along which it had to be manouvred. --'On poets being paid for their work' by Geoff Page and Alan Gould in Thylazine: The Australian Journal of Arts, Ethics & Literature

[Update: Eimear in the comments has noted that I'm not finding many Kanga hammers on the web because they're Kango hammers--aha! Here's a picture--they are a sort of power-hammer, not as big/bulky as a jackhammer.]

Finally, an AmE tradename-cum-generic-heavy-machinery-name is the Mack truck, heard often in the phrases hit by a Mack truck and run over by a Mack truck:
Being divorced is like being hit by a Mack truck. If you live through it, you start looking very carefully to the right and to the left. --Jean Kerr

If you wake up feeling as though you've just been run over by a Mack truck – what doctors refer to as unrefreshing sleep – it is reasonable for your physician to assume that you have a sleep disorder.
--Fibromyalgia Network
(Click here for pictures of Mack trucks.) OED has Mack as 'Chiefly N. Amer. (Orig. U.S.)', so it may be somewhat familiar in BrE. Other AmE names for Mack-type vehicles of various types are: 18-wheeler (marked in OED as 'orig. N. Amer.'), semi (also AusE) and tractor-trailer. The usual BrE term is articulated lorry.

Off topic, but someone would be sure to mention it, are the BrE meanings of semi. Usually semi refers to a (BrE) semi-detached house or (AmE) duplex. In Scottish English it can also refer to the second year at certain universities, including St Andrews (similar to AmE sophomore).


  1. One UK abb'n for articulated lorry is artic, though that may or may not have either been faddish among my crowd, or have faded out of use more than ten years ago.

  2. This was called The JCB Song

    You mean "This was (BrE) called/(AmE) named The JCB Song". :)

  3. I'm a BrE speaker and I had heard the word backhoe in AmE, but I had no idea what it was when Dr. Kawashima asked me to draw one!

  4. "Kango hammer" is what I've always heard and it gets more google hits.

  5. BH knows artic too, Paul, so it's not just your crowd.

    Anonymous, no, I don't mean that. It's perfectly normal in AmE to say the song is called X. For example, the Dandy Warhols, a Portland, Oregon band, have a song called "(Tony, this song is called) Lou Weed." A pair of American teen boys labels their YouTube video (for a rather obnoxious song 'Ugly') "Song is called 'Ugly' (we wrote it ourselves)'. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Eimear, thanks for the correction! I heard Kanga hammer at the party, but Kango is right, and one can even find pictures under that name. Will post one in the entry now...

  6. Aahhh, so that's what a duplex is...

  7. Lord above, I'm sorry LG. Bad internet connection means multiple postings....

  8. You can delete your excess posts. I've done it for you.

  9. The picture you show seems to be a combination backhoe and front-end loader. (The latter term is standard AmE, but I don't know if it translates to BrE well.)

    Each of those functions is also available in dedicated machinery, but the combination is pretty common.

  10. But Scottish degrees do take four years (which might well be why American ones do too). And, as for "St Andrew's", may I just say AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH?

  11. Points taken and corrected, Dearieme. Clearly, Scotland is not my forte, was just trying to anticipate 'corrections' to come in the comments.

    DS, Backhoe Loader is what JCB calls the item pictured.

  12. On the other hand, the Nizlopi song is a very fruitful source for southern English idioms as they were in late 2005, e.g., "Me and my dad havin a top laugh" = 'My father and I were enjoying considerable humour together' (!!!)

  13. The AmE equivalent of JCB might be Cat or Caterpillar, although I don't think it's in common usage outside the construction industry. My father used to call bulldozer drivers "Cat skinners", but that was 30 years ago.

  14. Clearly, my ability to appreciate the linguistic richness of The JCB Song is hindered by my allergy to it. Howard, you're a more stalwart linguist than I.

    People use Caterpillar/Cat outside the US, but the degree to which it's generici{s/z}ed varies across people and places. But, as you say Papascott, it's not in such general use in the US as JCB is in the UK. If someone wrote a song about riding a Cat(erpillar) I'd think it was a bit of psychedelia...

  15. Why is it that the British so often are guilty of trademark violations? Is it that there's no Writers Digest here for companies to post warnings to protect their trademarks, i.e. "Xerox"?

  16. I don't think Americans are all that much better at avoiding generic use of trademarks. Xerox as a noun and verb is much more common in the US than in the UK, in my experience. And BrE rarely uses a generici{s/z}ed trade name for (sticking) plasters (sometimes one hears Elastoplast, generally not), but AmE uses Band-Aid no matter the brand of bandage. (In BrE bandage only refers to the kind that mummies [the Egyptian kind, not the BrE maternal kind] wear, not the adhesive kind). And we generically talk about Wite-Out instead of correction fluid. (BrE also uses a tradename--Tippex.) My family always talks about their SUV as the Suburban, even though it was only the first one in the series that was actually a (Chevrolet) Suburban.

    BH points to Crisco and Saran wrap (= BrE cling film). The former usually is the Crisco brand, since it dominates the market, but you can talk about generic Crisco. Crisco is vegetable shortening--which is difficult to find as such in UK supermarkets. Instead one must use lard, suet or baking margarine. (In BrE one can talk of vegetarian lard/suet, which is essentially Crisco-type stuff.) This summer I was in a supermarket in Berlin with a shelf of "American foods" which seemed to consist mostly of Old El Paso products and Crisco.

    In some parts of the US , Coke can be used to refer to any kind of fizzy drink, no matter its flavo(u)r. Of course, it's a generic word for fizzy colas around the world these days. For more info on American dialectal words for fizzy drinks, see this useful website.

  17. I was thinking about the US/ UK use of trade names as generics the other day after i read this post, and i reckon we're all as bad as each other really. In addition to the above there's Hoover for vacuum cleaner in BrE, Kleenex for paper tissues in AmE (that's right isn't it? Have seen it in lots of books), and a whole load more i'm sure. (I still say Walkman for pretty much any portable music playing device, even my iPod; i'm not sure if anyone else does, but they certainly used to before the pods came along.)

    As for vegetable shortening in the UK, have you not seen Trex? It's not very nice, but it does exist; not sure if it's the exact same substance as Crisco, either, but it can't be too far off. It might not be used really as a generic term though. It can be easily found next to the butter/ marg and ready-made pastry in Sainsburys!

  18. Thanks for the tip, Ally. I've never seen Trex in Waitrose, but maybe I didn't recogni{s/z}e it as shortening when I was (desperately) looking for some. I've just started using baking margarine whenever I need shortening--lard and suet, even if they're vegetarian, just seem wrong to put in sweet baked goods!

  19. Well they might not stock it in Waitrose. Might be a bit too scummy for 'em. ;)

  20. Four years down the line, after a conversation with Lynneguist on Twitter! I was out with an American friend yesterday and our journey was rendered hideous at one stage by the noise of what she insisted was a jackhammer, but I (BrE) knew as a pneumatic drill - a difference of which I had been unaware until then.

  21. And another two years on (well, Lynneguist did reference this post in her DOTD yesterday) - and now a proud grandmother. My small grandson, as so many small boys, enjoys watching the construction machines at work renovating his local park. These are generically known among the local parent-and-toddler set as "diggers", and Lynne's "Difference of the Day" led me to wondering what the American toddler equivalent of my grandson's enthusiastic "Dig!" would be.

    (Incidentally, why is there no longer an option to receive follow-up comments by e-mail?)


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)