Grammar Nerd: Should You Call It a “Motor” or an “Engine”?

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My friend Sajeev Mehta writes for The Truth About Cars. One of his readers has a problem with his usage of “engine” vs. “motor” in his writing. Is he correct?

This week, he wrote a story that included the following paragraph:

“Crankshafts, like damn near everything else in our lives, benefit from the KISS principle. A flat plane crankshaft has the potential for significant weight savings to optimize a motor’s moment of inertia and more even firing to benefit the exhaust stroke, allowing for more revs/horsepower.”

In response, he got an email from a reader, who took serious issue with his grammar.

“I assume you know that ‘motor’ is used for an electric motor and ‘engine’ is used for internal combustion engine. It is a ‘jet engine’, not a ‘jet motor’, since the turbojet is an internal combustion device. So, why do you use ‘motor’ in that paragraph? Yes, I know it is a common usage word (I call it a redneck word), but why does an ‘expert’ use it?”

(Parenthetically, while we’re discussing linguistics, we’ll quote NPR’s linguist Geoff Nunberg, who wrote: “Back in 1989, the historian C. Vann Woodward said that ‘redneck’ is the only epithet for an ethnic minority that’s still permitted in polite company.”)

Moving on: Who would be the kind of person upon whom you could rely to weigh in on this semantic debate about “engine” versus “motor”?


Ah, yes, the “rednecks” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known far and wide for their innovations in moonshine stills and NASCAR.

“The etymologies of ‘motor’ and ‘engine’ reflect the way language evolves to represent what’s happening in the world,” says MIT literature professor Mary Fuller in an “Ask An Engineer” post at the MIT School of Engineering’s website.

“The Oxford English Dictionary defines “motor” as a machine that supplies motive power for a vehicle or other device with moving parts,” she writes. “Similarly, it tells us that an engine is a machine with moving parts that converts power into motion. We use the words interchangeably now, but originally, they meant very different things.”


The root of “motor” is the Latin movere, which means “to move,” which is a pretty literal definition of what a “motor” does.

“Engine” is nowhere near that specific. “Engine” comes from the Latin ingenium, which means character, mental powers, talent, intellect, or cleverness. It has nothing to do with mechanical force, nor the differences between electric motors and internal combustion engines. Prior to the widespread adoption of gasoline and diesel engines, in fact, the word “engine” was used to describe things like apparatuses for catching game, nets, traps and decoys, according to Fuller.

“Engine” — in other words — is a metaphor, or “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.”


Lots of words change meanings. What are Google, Yahoo and Bing? “Search ENGINES.” Unless I missed something, none of those devices are gas-fired. In fact, they use “engine” in a way that hews much closer to the original 15th century usage to describe a device of particular cleverness.

Similarly, the word “dashboard,” has been used interchangeably with “instrument panel” for generations, but in the 1840s referred literally to the piece of wood that kept mud and debris from splashing on the driver of a stagecoach.

I’m in no danger of being so besplattered as I write this post via WordPress’s “dashboard.”


And then there’s pure economics: If we’ve truly decided that it’s inappropriate to use “motor” and “engine” interchangeably, it’s going to cost a lot of money for companies to rebrand themselves to “General Engines,” “Ford Engine Company,” and “Toyota Engine Corporation.”


We’ll also alert the entire nation of Germany that even though its translation for “engine” is literally “motor,” they’ll have to come up with something else.

Craig Fitzgerald is the Editor-in-Chief at, and spent eight years as an editor at Hemmings Motor Engine News

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at