"Flivver" in OED

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sun Jun 8 14:30:46 UTC 2003

> Wondering about the etymology of "flivver" (= "small auto" etc.), I
> reviewed the OED entry. I find that "flivver" referred to a
> small destroyer ("750 tons or less", OED). I reviewed the list of
> US destroyer classes and I found the Flusser class, of which the
> 700-ton USS Flusser was commissioned in 1909 (IIRC). That looks
> like a likely origin of "flivver" = "destroyer". Googling with the
> entry <<  flivver flusser  >> turns up a (cached) Russian page
> wherein these names are in fact equated for this destroyer class:
> so I think my odd notion is probably correct for once. [Of
> course this suggests that "flivver" PROBABLY had SOME other
> sense before being applied to the destroyer class, but we know that
> "flivver" was used something like "flop" by 1912, and a
> 'deprecating' use for a light destroyer from this origin might not
> be unbelievable (cf. modern USN "tin can" = "destroyer").]

I'm skeptical of an etymological connection between "Flusser" and "flivver."
The "fl-" is probably just coincidence.

First, there was no "Flusser-class" destroyer. There have been several
destroyers named USS Flusser in naval service. The first was DD-20
(1909-20), in service from 1909-20, a "Smith-class" destroyer. I found a few
web sites that classify the Flusser and one other destroyer (USS Reid,
DD-21) as "Flusser-class," but most do not and official US Navy sources call
the Flusser a "Smith-class" ship.

The Flusser, at about 700 tons, was a "flivver," but it's not certain
whether this term was current when the Flusser was in service or only
applied retroactively. The OED's destroyer definition is based on a 1928
dictionary. Although, by 1928 destroyers would all have been much larger
than 700 tons, so there would have been little call for a slang term for
these small ships, leading one to think it's a WWI-era term.

It does seem possible that the destroyer sense comes from the flop, failure
sense. By WWI, 700-ton destroyers were somewhat undersized. It's easy to
imagine "flivver" being applied to the light destroyers c.1918.

Further speculation: Any connection between the car and destroyer senses of
"flivver" and "tin Lizzie" and "tin can"?

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