None of us washes our rental cars (antedating 1985)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 18 05:01:17 UTC 2010

A favorite maxim of conservative and libertarian commentators concerns
the maintenance of rental cars by non-owners.

Citation: 2009 May 8, Could Profit Motive Put an End to Piracy? by
John Stossel and Andrew Kirell, ABC News website.

Economists have said "what nobody owns, nobody takes care of," and "no
one washes a rental car."

Jonathan Lighter noted that the politician Eliot Spitzer on CNN said
recently:   "Somebody once said, 'Nobody washes their rental car.'
Ownership is good.'" This shows that the adage is not restricted to
conservatives and libertarians. A 1991 citation for the saying was
given during a discussion in the ADS archive in 2006. Also, in the
archive Charles Doyle remarked on the difficulty of determining "What
'counts' as an INSTANCE of (or evidence for the existence of) a given
proverb?" A wonderful quote from Shakespeare illustrated his point.

Below we exhibit a citation from a business book that was a bestseller
in the 1980s, "A Passion for Excellence". The book reports on a
variety of case studies including one that analyzes a reorganization
of airplane maintenance staff within the military instigated by
General Bill Creech. The new organization assigns staff to maintain
specific planes on a long-term basis instead of shifting personnel
between multiple planes, and this new arrangement is successful
according to the authors. The core of the maxim is pronounced by "one
of Bill Creech's noncommissioned officers (NCOs)."

Citation: 1985, A Passion for Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Nancy
Austin, Page 239, Random House. (Google Books snippet view only.
Metadata is sometimes inaccurate. The excerpt below is based on Google
snippets and Amazon Look Inside.)

The general asked him what the difference was between the old,
specialist organization and the new organization, in which the plane
and the sortie are the "customer," where the supervisor ("designated
crew chief," remember) "owns" the plane. The NCO's to-the-point reply:
"General, when's the last time you washed a rental car?" We think that
may say it all. None of us washes our rental cars. There's no
ownership. And there's no ownership if you're a specialist, no matter
how well trained, if you're responsible only for two square feet of
the right wing of a hundred planes. Only whole planes fly.

I think that this cite points to the starting point of the process of
conversion of the phrase into a modern proverb. However, it is also
possible that the NCO heard the phrase beforehand as a proverb, and he
was transmitting it to the General. If that is the case then this
citation marks an important locus of popularization.

Of course, rental cars may not gleam, but they are not usually caked
with inches of dirt, and I found another cite that caused a chuckle at
the time.

Citation: 1966 November 17, Wisconsin State Journal, Page 60, Column
3, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspaperarchive)

[Classified Advertisement] CAR RENTAL AGENCY ATTENDANT - part time,
Excellent opportunity for college student. Wash rental cars and wait
on customers.

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

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