The humble clown car has been having a resurgence of late. Not the actual vehicle (the overstuffed car which spills out a seemingly improbable number of red-nosed and bewigged jesters), but the phrase. The reason for this has much to do with the crowded slate of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; there are over a dozen declared candidates who are household names, and more who are thought likely to run.
Back in January of this year, the Huffington Post published a piece called “The 2015 GOP Clown Car: Bigger, Meaner, and More Dangerous Than Ever,” and in May, the Washington Post had an opinion piece with the succinct title of “The Republican field is a Clown Car.” As the field of contenders has grown ever larger, more and more people have been using it to describe this crop of political aspirants. So what exactly is a clown car, and where does it come from?
Clown cars originated in the circus world, making their first appearance in the early 20th century. At this time clown car did not refer to the clown cars we all know and love today (or hate, depending on your feelings about clowns); the phrase referred to another kind of car entirely: a train car. Since circuses often traveled by train, the clown car (as opposed to the car occupied by the trapeze artists or other circus performers) was the car for the clowns. In the railroad realm, it was also meant a train car that was made of bits and pieces of scraps. Around the same time, the phrase also described a car which was often brightly painted, sometimes would drive on two wheels instead of four, and, within, carried a normal number or occupants.
The birth of the modern (meaning overstuffed) clown car came in the early 1940s. An article in the Chicago Daily Tribune from August 29, 1943, (“Circus Nostalgic, Despite Glittering Pageantry”) refers to a “snorting clown car, which disgorges jesters galore.” In 1947, the Lexington Herald (referring to the Coles Brothers Circus) writes that “the venerable ‘clown car’ gag was used, and it’s a memorable experience to ride with 16 others in an ordinary-sized automobile.” Despite these useful references, the precise origin of this circus bit remains shrouded in mystery, but when did the phrase begin to be used figuratively? Fairly recently, it would appear.
A 1979 article in the Seattle Daily Times refers to a performance of the Nutcracker ballet, with “Mother Goose with all of the tots in red ‘jammies rolling out from under her petticoat (shades of the clown car at the circus).” But it is not until the 1990s that we begin to see the words used in a completely figurative fashion. Howie Carr, writing in the Boston Globe in 1992, began a column with the line “The clown car keeps pulling up in front of Joe Early headquarters, and the clowns just keep piling out.”
It remains to be seen whether the figurative clown car will have staying power, joining successful snippets of circus lingo (such as dog and pony show and ringmaster), or whether it will go the way of other largely forgotten terms of the big top (such as funambulist). – Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.