A Would-Be Anthropologist Looks at Trucker Lingo

Recently my brother let me ride with him for a week of long-haul trucking in his 18-wheeler. Who hasn’t ever wanted to do that? It’s been a dream of mine from the time I was little and was thrilled by The Big Red Pajama Wagon, by Mary Elting, in which pretty much nothing happens but which thrilled me anyway.

A week in which nothing happens is the trucker’s goal, it turns out. And Tom is a relative novice, having taken up trucking a few months ago after 20 years of teaching high-school math. He’s learned that a great week is when you don’t back over a street light, pick up the wrong load, or nearly flatten a sports car that brakes in front of your 50,000 pounds doing 60 mph.

When I embarked on the trip, Lingua Franca’s editor suggested I pay attention to words and phrases peculiar to trucking. What I found, however, was that the only way for me to learn anything was to grill Tom for jargon he picked up during training. This is because (alert: generalization from participatory observation) for today’s newbie to trucking, spoken communication with other truckers is almost entirely optional.

This is not the world of Smokey and the Bandit. Trucking blogs and Web sites, GPS, and Internet access with up-to-the-minute news on traffic and routes and food have reduced the need for face-to-face conversations with other drivers for information and advice—and even entertainment. Tom doesn’t even have a CB radio.

Tom Fisher communicates with his dispatcher using a Qualcomm satellite messaging system.

At night we sometimes parked along with many other trucks in the interstate highway rest-area system, which, with its alcohol-free fast-food joints, provides no taverns or even congenial places for an evening of schmoozing, even if our relentless hauling deadlines had allowed time for it. In the rest areas where we stopped, few drivers sat at the tables in the restaurants.

In the commercial truck stops, there are TV lounges, video games, and showers, but at night everyone seemed to be tucked up in their cabs as we were, reading, sleeping, e-mailing, or streaming. In a week on the road I don’t believe we had more than two brief conversations with other drivers.

So for a peek into this hard-to-learn language, here are some of the words and phrases I rooted out.

Lumpers: Dock workers who check a delivered load, break it down, count it, prepare the bill.

A low boy trailer.

Low boy: A very low flat-bed trailer used for tall loads that otherwise wouldn’t fit under overpasses, or for heavy, unbalanced objects that would tip more easily on a higher bed.

Yard jockey: Someone who drives a little tractor in a truck lot (yard) to move parked trailers that are ready for loading or unloading. The yard jockey might also park trailers in tight spots if the driver can’t do it. (On my trip, Tom was able to avoid this humiliation.)

Bobtail: To drive a tractor without a trailer hitched to it. Tractors are happier pulling a heavy load; bobtailing is awkward.

Jakes, or Jake brakes: Diesel engine brakes, which slow the truck by releasing air compression from the engine cylinders. (Wikipedia explains this well and notes that the name comes from the Jacobs brand of these brakes.) Jake brakes are used for extra braking with heavy loads. In some areas, signs prohibit their use because of the noise they can make.

Steers: The two front wheels of the tractor.

Drives: The eight wheels under the tractor.

Tom's tractor, backing under a trailer. The fifth wheel is on top, at an angle.

Fifth wheel: A large flat pad on the tractor with a hooklike projection for hitching to the trailer. The driver backs the cab under the trailer, which makes the fifth wheel depress until it engages, with a big clunking noise.

Slide the axle: At our first stop a truck beside ours had just been loaded, and Tom pointed and said, “Watch this.” The driver pulled a lever at the side of the trailer, rummaged around underneath, then got in the cab, engine running, and whatever he did next caused the whole trailer box to slide back on its raft of wheels. Sliding the axle back or forward allows you to balance each load for optimal driving and turning. If you have a heavy load, you distribute it evenly over all the wheels and axles; the back axle will be under the back of the load. For a lighter load, you pull the axles forward and the back part of the trailer hangs out beyond the last axle. In addition to balancing the load, the latter results in a smaller turning radius and easier parking.

Glad hands: A type of connection used to join the air supply hose to any of the brakes that work by compression. The two connectors swivel together to interlock, reminiscent of the way a person might put palms together and rotate the hands in opposite directions.

Jack: The angle of tractor to trailer (thus “jackknife”). Backing and parking an 18-wheeler is, to say the least, difficult. When Tom had to back into a tight spot between two other trailers with maybe a foot of play on either side, it usually took a few “pull-ups.” (An excessive number of pull-ups is a source of shame, he told me. In driving school, in order to pass, he had to park with a limited number of pull-ups.) So, when you “dial in your jack,” or “get some jack,” you get the cab under the trailer at a sharp angle and back up, pivoting on the trailer’s rear wheels. If you do this exactly right, the trailer slides right in. Watching a pro do this in one glide filled me with awe.

Drop-and-hook: It’s typical to get unloaded in one yard and then drive the empty trailer to another yard—maybe even in another city—to be loaded with something else. This can mean waiting many hours in both yards. In a drop-and-hook, when you arrive with an empty trailer, you leave it in the yard and hitch to an already-loaded trailer. In and out in just a few minutes.

If you’d like to share the thrill of my adventure, watch this two-minute video of a drop-and-hook. You’ll see the driver jacking and parking, lowering the “landing gear,” making the glad-hand connections, and hitching by means of the fifth wheel.

My misuse of some of this jargon made Tom smile, which made me feel all the more like a rookie explorer in some exotic culture. But then, jargon always separates the cognoscenti from the neophytes—something academic writers should always keep in mind.




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