Looking modern(e)

Passed on by Dean Calbreath on Facebook, this image of the 1948 Buick Streamliner:

Dean’s comment: “I’ve never seen a car this beautiful – and it’s more than 60 years old.” It might seem surprisingly old, but it comes close to the end of the great age of streamlining as the image of fashionable modernity in design. Here’s a train design from almost two decades earlier:

Streamliner, attested in OED2 from 1938 on, combines the verb (and noun) streamline with the liner of ocean liner and airliner. The lexical story begins with the noun streamline (or stream-line), which began as a perfectly ordinary N + N compound, of the fluid noun stream and the geometrical noun line, the combination specialized for use in hydrodynamics and aerodynamics; from OED2:

a. (See quot. 1906.) In mod. use, a line such that, at any instant, the direction of the tangent at any point is the direction of the flow of fluid at that point. (This definition is equivalent to that in quot. 1906 for the special case of steady flow.)

1868   W. J. Rankine in Engineer 16 Oct. 285/1   A stream-line is the line, whether straight or curved, that is traced by a particle in a current of fluid. [first cite]

1906   H. Lamb Hydrodynamics (ed. 3) 17   A ‘line of motion’ or ‘stream-line’ is defined to be a line drawn from point to point, so that its direction is everywhere that of the motion of the fluid. [crucial cite]

b. attrib.

(a) Designating motion of a fluid that is free from turbulence, so that it can be represented by a pattern of streamlines that either is constant or changes steadily with time. [from 1898, stream-line motion]

(a) Designating motion of a fluid that is free from turbulence, so that it can be represented by a pattern of streamlines that either is constant or changes steadily with time. [from 1907, streamline form]

In more recent uses, the historical origins of the noun streamline seem largely to have become obscured for most people, so that it comes to refer to a form that takes advantage of streamlines. The noun was then verbed in this sense:

1. trans. To give a streamline form to. Chiefly as streamlined adj. [from 1913], streamlining n. [from 1918] [first cite 1918, with respect to to airplanes; extended sense in this 1927 cite from J. B. S. Haldane & J. S. Huxley Animal Biol. xiii. 316: The air-sacs..are used to stream-line the body.]

2. fig.

a. To slim; to remodel on smooth, uncluttered lines. [from 1935]

b. To simplify, esp. in order to make more efficient or better organized. [from 1936]

The verb moves from the world of ships (and, later, airplanes) to the world of trains (and, later, cars), and we get streamliners:

A streamliner is a vehicle incorporating streamlining in a shape providing reduced air resistance. The term is applied to high-speed railway trainsets of the 1930s to 1950s, and to their successor “bullet trains”… The term was applied to cars, but now car streamlining is so prevalent that it is not an outstanding characteristic. (link)

Smooth, streamlined design eventually spilled over into architecture, fashion, and much else — where it now tends to strike us as cool but old-fashioned. (It’s a prominent feature of the BBC Hercule Poirot tv series starring David Suchet.)

 

One Response to “Looking modern(e)”

  1. h.s. gudnason Says:

    There are still a few supermarkets in the area (southwestern Ohio) that bear signs saying “Foodliner.” I don’t think I’d ever seen it before I moved here, and I still find it very odd.

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