Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origin of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
Ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address next week, several groups called for convoys of trucks heading to the Washington, D.C. area to protest Covid-19 vaccination mandates and related restrictions. Modeled on the Canadian truckers’ protest known as the “Freedom Convoy”, the American counterparts similarly styled themselves, with a sizable group dubbed the “People’s Convoy”.
A “convoy” is a group of vehicles traveling together for mutual support, protection or convenience. Truck convoys, which have been part of popular culture since the 1970s, typically involve several large trucks lined up on the highway and moving in the same direction. Some of the anti-vaccine trucking groups may not quite qualify as ‘convoys’, however – protest held in Pennsylvania largely sold out when only a handful of vehicles showed up to participate.
The word “convoy” goes back to the Latin verb “conviare”, meaning “to accompany on the way”, combining the prefix “con-” (“with”) and “via” (“path” or “road”). In medieval French, the verb splits into two meanings: “conveyor”, source of the English word “convey”, and the variant form “convoyer”, which gives rise to “convoy”.
“On the high seas, the “convoy” was applied to fleets accompanying merchant ships.”
Originally, “convoy” (used as a noun or verb) could refer to various types of traveling escorts, such as a party accompanying a guest of honor or a funeral procession. In the 17th century, the “convoy” came into use primarily for military escorts protecting people or goods in transit. The word appears in the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s “Henri V”, in which King Henry exhorts his troops on the eve of the battle of Agincourt against the French: “He who does not want to this fight, let him go; his passport will be made, and convoy coins will be put in his purse.
On the high seas, the “convoy” was applied to fleets accompanying merchant ships, especially those carrying military supplies. As naval historian Jon Robb-Webb explains in “The Oxford Companion to Military History”, Britain’s Royal Navy had a sophisticated convoy system in place to protect merchant ships by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
While “convoy” originally referred to those escorting, its meaning has changed to also cover an escorted party. Eventually, it was extended to groups traveling together with or without a guide. Much like the word “caravan”, “convoy” has been used to refer to a line of vehicles heading in the same direction. In modern times, wagon trains have given way to motor vehicle convoys.
Truckers clung to the word in the 1970s, and from the start trucking convoys had an anti-authoritarian streak. In January 1974, after the oil crisis caused a spike in gas prices, a convoy of about 100 tractor-trailers drove through the South en route to Washington to protest fuel prices. The institution of the 55 mph speed limit has led truckers to form convoys on the highways, avoiding speed traps by communicating via CB radio, or Citizens Band.
Trucker convoy culture was memorably portrayed in CW McCall’s 1975 single “Convoy,” an outlaw character created by singer Bill Fries in collaboration with songwriter Chip Davis. Dotted with CB radio lingo, such as “breaker one-nine” to start a transmission, the song tells the story of a coast-to-coast convoy that breaks speed limits and turns into a real armed with “a thousand screaming trucks”. through the police checkpoints. Three years later, the song inspired a moviealso called “Convoy”, with Kris Kristofferson playing Rubber Duck, the rebel trucker who gets the convoy started.
The fictionalized imagery of 1970s trucking convoys has inspired current protests. Like the New York sun reports, the “People’s Convoy” adopted CW McCall’s “Convoy” as its “de facto theme song”. It remains to be seen whether this convoy, like that of the song, attracts a thousand trucks, howling or not.
Corrections & Amplifications
The 1975 song “Convoy” was recorded by CW McCall, singer Bill Fries’ fictional alter ego. An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the name as a CW callout. (Corrected February 28)
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