Posted by: Dutch | December 27, 2009

Back seat driver

Meaning

Someone who criticizes from the sidelines.

Origin

This comes from the annoying habit of some people of giving unwanted advice to vehicle drivers. This emerged in the USA in early 20th century, as motoring was becoming widespread. The first reference I can find is from the Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, USA), May 1914:

“When New York pitcher Vernon Gomez retires as a smokeballer he wants to become a smoke eater. Here he gets a tryout as a back-seat driver on a hook and ladder truck at St. Petersburg…”

Throughout the 20th century U.S. fire departments commonly used large articulated ladder trucks, known as tillers. These had both front and rear-wheel steering to enable the long vehicles to turn in city streets. That’s what Gomez is pictured steering here.

Tiller

The link between that form of back seat driving and the present meaning of the phrase isn’t explicit, and there’s no particular reason to attach any negative sentiment to it. It’s possible that the phrase originated that way, but I rather doubt it.

[My thanks to Sue Watkins, National Genealogical Society/Association of Professional Genealogists, for interpretation of the Kennebec Journal story].

The meaning of ‘back-seat driver’ is unambiguous in this from The Bismarck Tribune a few years later – December 1921:

“A back-seat driver is the pest who sits on the rear cushions of a motor car and tells the driver what to do. He issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, offers no end of criticism. And doesn’t do a bit of work.”

We no longer need back-seat drivers in cars to nag us if we take a wrong turning; we now have electronic devices for that. I wonder how long it will be before someone coins a negative term for them?

– Our sincere thanks to Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder

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