Chirps and squeaks? It's just car talk

The complex phonics of automobiles speaks to the bird-watcher in him.

I was about to drive our new van off the car lot several years ago when a sales staffer waved me back to the dealership.

"There's one thing I forgot to give you," she told me as she pressed a small pamphlet into my hands. "If the van ever makes a noise that needs fixing, this will help you explain what you're hearing."

I opened the brochure and saw that it contained a small glossary of car noises and brief definitions.

The terms ranged from "booming," defined as a "rhythmic sound like a drum or distant thunder," to "whining," which was listed as a "high-pitched buzzing sound." But as I glanced over the text, all I could manage was a sigh of confusion, perhaps best described as "a low, deflating sound, like air slowly escaping from a tire."

Sensing my puzzlement, the sales lady shrugged and confessed that she was just following protocol.

"Apparently, we've had people come into dealerships for repairs who don't know a chirp from a squeak or a hiss from a hum," she explained. "The folks in Detroit make us give these to all the customers so that everybody's on the same page."

My eyes darted around the lot for a few moments as I looked for the hidden lens that would reveal my presence on "Candid Camera." But as the sales lady kept a straight face and wished me luck, I realized that the slender dictionary of car noises I'd just placed on the dashboard wasn't meant as a joke.

The pamphlet proved more intriguing to me than the vehicle we'd just bought, so I was happy to let my wife test drive our purchase as I parsed the difference between "clanking," a "banging sound, like something being dropped," and "tapping," a "light hammering noise, sometimes rhythmic or intermittent."

The glossary charmed me because I'd read much the same thing within the pages of my "Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds," famous for the late Roger Tory Peterson's lyrical attempts to transcribe bird song into phonetic equivalents.

Like Peterson, who characterized the voice of the red-throated loon as "a repeated kwuk" and the call of the long-tailed duck as "a musical ow-owdle-ow," the person who aspires to be the Noah Webster of car noises inevitably ends up explaining one sound by evoking another one that's just as mysterious.

I couldn't help noticing, for example, that the lexicographer of car talk had resorted to describing a knock as a kind of bang, a rattle as a kind of shake, and a rumble as a kind of gurgle, leading the reader in a merry circle that always took one back to the same sublime and inexpressible mysteries of automotive physics.

If Peterson was the first person to come to mind as I tried to plumb the phonics of my six-cylinder engine, perhaps it's because I have a lengthy history of translating motorspeak into birdspeak.

When something loosened on my Ford, for example, I complained to the mechanic of "a constant chirping from under the dash, like a brood of chicks angling for feed."

Our neighborhood repairman, long accustomed to my ornithological shorthand, knew at once that my drive belt needed tightening.

Perhaps one day I'll present a paper before the Audubon Society on the similarities between certain goldfinch phrases and a leaking manifold, or the almost uncanny way that low power-steering fluid can mimic the dirge of the mourning dove.

I realize, of course, that not everyone listens to a failing car engine and hears an aviary under the hood.

One of my sisters, who prefers the anthropomorphic in automotive case histories, confided to her mechanic that the front of the car was making a low, plaintive sound, "like a little old lady trapped inside." There was, alas, no octogenarian lashed to the drive shaft, although when it comes to car noises, life sometimes has a way of imitating art.

An in-law of mine once reported to a repair shop and detailed a sharp grinding sound from the bottom of the chassis, "almost as if a garbage can is stuck underneath." She had, as it turned out, flattened a trash receptacle several blocks away.

My glossary of car noises still rests on the living room shelf, although the van was totaled last year in a wreck, otherwise known as "a huge crashing sound, followed by 36 new car payments."

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