streetcar (‘a shell’) noun any evidence

In 1950, the novelist Raymond Chandler wrote in a letter to Hamish Hamilton: ‘Doesn’t he [i.e. Eric Partridge, the author of many slang dictionaries] overlook some of the most commonly used words of soldier-slang? E.g…“street cars” or “tram cars” for heavy long range shells.’ Chandler served in the First World War with Canadian and British forces and would have been very familiar with military slang, but we have found only one other example of streetcar meaning ‘shell’, from a work published after the war:

The air was filled with the sounds of the shells as they lazily went on their way towards the back lines of both sides. ‘Street cars’..the boys called them.

1920 Charles R. Herr Company F Hist.: 319th Infantry, p.  22

Given that Chandler felt that this was one of the ‘most commonly used’ items of soldiers’ slang, is there more evidence for this sense of streetcar that we haven’t uncovered, perhaps in letters or diaries?

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To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War (1914–18), the OED is revising a set of vocabulary related to or coined during the war. Part of the revision process involves searching for earlier or additional evidence, and for this we need your help. Our first quotations are often from newspapers and magazines, and we know that there may well be earlier evidence in less-easily-accessible sources such as letters, diaries, and government records, many of which are now being made available in digital form for the first time.

Posted by OED_Editor on 29 January 2014 11.49
Comments: 4

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  • Stephen Goranson

    In case it is worth filling in the ellipsis in the 1920 quote: “‘Street cars’–‘Petersburg Locals’ the boys called them.” This U.S. infantry company came from Fort Lee, Virginia, which is near Petersburg VA. So, possibly, streetcar or tramcar might allude not only to the large mass of metal in big shells, but perhaps also to a potential cause of transportation home. (?)

  • Bryn_Wordhunt

    GoogleBooks attributes a usage of the “tram car” variant:

    ” They scarcely noticed these occasional djinns of death, so ineffective
    were they by contrast to the whirlwind of destruction that swept the other way. The habituated ear could now pick out the rumbling, tram-car-like progress of the heavy shells overhead, the fierce rushing drone of the missiles from the lighter guns, mingling with the uninterrupted sheet of sound

    To The Strand Magazine, Volume 53, 1917, page 534

    Variations of this text are, also, attributed to:
    Austin, F.B. (1919) According To Orders, New York, George H.
    Doran & Co, `page 170’ – which had been published by Andrew Melrose, in London, in 1918
    And to:
    The Argosy, Volume 7, Issues 45-49, 1930, `page 64’

    • Bryn_Wordhunt

      The Delta magazine [of the Sigma Nu Fraternity], Volume XXXVI, Number 2, December 1918, page 193 [column 2], within an article, by Regent Borden H. Burr, entitled “The Regent In France: four months with the American Army”, has:

      A “Heavenly” Street Car
      The boys learn by their sound how to estimate fairly accurately the size, kind and probable place of striking. The Austrian “whiz-bam” – so nicknamed by the soldiers – has the sound almost of a street car running through the heavens, followed by the quick “whizz” and then the “bam” of the explosion. They pay no attention to the sound of the shells which do not indicate danger …

      • Bryn_Wordhunt

        Climo, P.L. [Ed.] (1990) “Let us remember: lively letters from World War One”, Colborne, 1990, page 170, has the passage:

        Letter from E.L. MacNachtan, Belgium, May 5th,1915

        The big shells are 17 inchies in diameter. The English Tommies call them
        ’tram Cars: from the peculiar rumbling roar they make flying through the air. It is exactly like a tram-car or street car as we Canadians call them.

        E.L. MacNACHTAN
        4th Battery, 1st Brigade, C.F.A.