Where does 18-wheeler come from?
Alexander Winton, a carmaker of Cleveland, Ohio, manufactured the first semitruck in the 1890s as a way to deliver the cars he sold to buyers across the country without putting any wear on the newly purchased car itself. August Charles Fruehauf, a blacksmith of Detroit, Michigan, developed a similar design in the 1910s as a way to transport his boat. Into the 20th century, the advent of paved roadways, along with the need for more efficient transportation in car manufacturing, wartime equipment, and logging industries, spurred the rapid evolution of the modern 18-wheeler—a term attested to in the New York Times by 1934. The name is apparently modeled on older vehicle colloquialisms like four-wheeler, the name for a four-wheel carriage since at least the 1840s.
President Eisenhower's 1950s authorization of the US interstate highway system solidified the 18-wheeler as a staple of commercial transportation in the US. Some other countries in the Americas followed suit, though generally lower weight class restrictions in European countries limited the popularity of the 18-wheeler abroad. As weight classes were set higher and higher in the US, more and more stock could be transported across state lines.
It was during the 1960s that trucking began to take hold as a career—and by the 1970s, trucker culture exploded into cultural awareness. In 1976, the country song "Convoy" by C.W. McCall hit #1 on the Billboard music charts. The song told the tale of truckers using CB radio to communicate while on the interstates, using coded lingo to communicate without policemen and state patrol understanding their conversations. The song was wildly popular and even inspired a 1978 movie of the same name about the Wild West-esque showdown between truckers and the law. Smokey and the Bandit, a popular movie released in 1977, followed a similar plotline and is considered a cult classic.
The familiarity of trucking in contemporary transportation coupled with its portrayal in mass media all helped push 18-wheeler into the popular lexicon.
Who uses 18-wheeler?
18-wheeler is informally used today by the general public in speech and writing for any large semitruck, regardless of the actual wheel count. Truckers themselves and others in the industry typically use either more specialized jargon or colorful slang lingo to refer to their trucks, though many will still call a semitruck with 18 wheels an 18-wheeler.
An 18-wheeler is the largest commercial vehicle allowed by federal regulation on interstates and, perhaps as a result, a go-to hyperbole for extreme force. For example, someone who has the flu might say that they feel like they were hit or run over by an 18-wheeler.
Another notable example of 18-wheeler in metaphoric use comes in rapper Drake's 2013 single, "Connect," where he sings: "She just wanna run over my feelings / Like she drinking and driving in an 18 wheeler."
Life is just an 18 wheeler running you over in slow motion for 100 years
@AntagOfficial, March, 2018
What was once one or two small truck deliveries a week has grown to several 18-wheeler truckloads and other deliveries at Mid-South.
Dennis Seid, Daily Journal, March, 2018
I had even cried while in the shower....It helped but I was praying for the time to pass and mercury would go direct and the universal energies would relax. Because being a medium and a healer it's like getting hit with sledge hammers, and getting hit by an 18 wheeler.
Brian Warriner, The Spirit of Me: Coming Out As a Medium, 2016