Q: A “parking lot” in the US is a “car park” in the UK, except when it isn’t. What can you tell me about these two terms?
A: Yes, “car park” is the usual term in the UK for what is referred to as a “parking lot” in the US, though “car park” is not unknown to Americans, nor “parking lot” to the British.
Our recent searches of the Corpus of Contemporary English got 11,215 hits for “parking lot” and 146 for “car park,” while our searches of the British National Corpus had 1,439 hits for “car park” and 35 for “parking lot.”
Not surprisingly, “lot” and “park” had nothing to do with storing vehicles when they first appeared—”lot” in Old English and “park” in Middle English.
The original meaning of “lot” was an object drawn randomly to make a decision, while “park” was originally an enclosed hunting preserve granted by the crown.
The story begins in Anglo-Saxon times, when a “lot” (spelled hlot in Old English) was one of the pieces of straw, wood, paper, and so on used to resolve disputes, divide goods, choose someone for a position, etc.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the process as “an appeal to chance or a divine agency believed to be involved in the results of chance.”
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Old English term ultimately comes from khlut-, a reconstructed prehistoric Germanic base that “appears to have denoted the use of objects to make decisions by chance.”
The earliest OED citation for the random selection sense of “lot” is from an Old English version of the Acts of Andrew, an early Christian apocryphal document about the Apostle Andrew:
“Hie sendon hlot him betweonum, hwider hyra gehwylc faran scolde to læranne” (“They cast lots among themselves to learn where each of them should travel”).
The “lot” that was drawn to decide who got a share of divided land later came to stand for the share of land itself.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Charters of Northern Houses (2012), a collection of Anglo-Saxon land charters from Northumbria, dating back to the 10th century, edited by the Cambridge historian David Woodman:
“On Fearnesfelda gebyrað twega manna hlot landes into Sudwellan” (“In Fearn’s field, extend a lot of land for two men into Southwell”).
Although this use of “lot” in Anglo-Saxon charters to mean a portion of land is now considered historical, according to the OED, a similar sense showed up in the US in the 17th century.
Oxford describes the modern use of “lot” to mean a “plot or parcel of land” as originally and chiefly North American.
The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1633 entry in the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “The westermost part of the Governors greate lot.”
Over the years, the OED says, this sense evolved from “a piece of land assigned by the state to a particular owner” to “a piece of land divided off for a particular purpose” and then to “a fairly small plot of land with fixed boundaries and in separate occupation or ownership from surrounding plots.”
The first Oxford citation for “lot” as an “area of land used for parking motor vehicles” is from the Aug. 12, 1909, issue of Motor World:
“The owner of the big lot on the north side of the road reaped a harvest. He raised his prices from ‘two bits’ to $1, but even this did not keep out the cars, and there were fully 500 machines parked in the lot.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrase “parking lot” is from R.F.D. #3, a 1924 novel by the American writer Homer Croy: “Some of the people still lingered under the arc light, with its summer collection of bugs still in it, waiting for the two to come from the parking lot.”
As for “car park,” the story begins in the 13th century, when “park” appeared as an “enclosed tract of land held by royal grant or prescription and reserved for keeping and hunting deer and other game,” according to the OED.
Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the term comes from parc in Old French, but ultimately “goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base, meaning ‘enclosed space.’ ”
The first OED citation for “park” is from a document, dated 1222, that lists the cost of maintaining a park fence in Cambridgeshire, England:
“Summa de parkselver per annum de operariis ix d. ob. q” (from Customary Rents, a 1910 monograph about manorial rents, by the American historian Nellie Neilson). The term “parkselver” (“park” + “silver”) refers to a fee for park repairs.
In the 17th century, “park” took on its modern sense of a “large public garden or area of land used for recreation.”
The first Oxford example is from In Lesbiam, & Histrionem, a poem by the British writer Thomas Randolph:
“Keepe his Race-nags, and in Hide-parke be seen.” The poem, published posthumously in 1638, is about a lesbian who keeps a young male actor as an ostensible lover.
The phrase “car park” showed up in the UK in the early 20th century, a couple of years after “parking lot” appeared on the other side of the Atlantic. The OED describes “car park” as a chiefly British term for “an open space or building for the parking of motor vehicles.”
The dictionary’s first example is from the Dec. 1, 1926, issue of the Daily Mail: “Glastonbury Car Park. Indignation has been aroused … by a proposal … to purchase part of the land … as an extra parking space for motor cars.”
By the way, the verb “park” meant to fence in animals when it appeared in Middle English in the early 1300s, according to the OED. It later came to mean to fence in a pasture or other land, and still later to create a park.
The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb “park” used for parking vehicles is an 1846 entry in The Mexican War Diary of George B. McClellan (1917), edited by William Starr Myers.
McClellan, a Union general during the Civil War, was a second lieutenant and recent graduate of West Point when he made these remarks at the beginning of the diary:
“To the left of the sand hills in front are a number of wagons parked, to the left of them a pound containing about 200 mules.”