Word Nerd Wednesday: The Shadetree Mechanic

This installment hardly qualifies as intellectual wordsmith worthy. I know this, but recently my Southern gal surfaced and I used this term in a conversation with a woman who was born and raised up north. She was bewildered.

So I asked my hillbilly friend if she’d heard this word before and she hadn’t either. This left me wondering if what I thought was a Southern thing was actually a black thing. A few clicks, a bit of reading, and here we are. It’s neither, really.

From the urban slang dictionary:

Shadetree mechanic: A hobbyist mechanic who works on their own vehicles, often in their driveway. (Perhaps underneath a tree providing shade.)

When I was a kid, they often worked on the vehicles of folks in the neighborhood as well. They tended to know cars, and well, but lacked the requisite commitment and business sense to open a “proper” garage.

Well as it turns out, these guys are a dying breed. Cars and trucks are being designed differently now and most people simply take their vehicles to the dealer for service.

Autotrader has a good article on the death of the shadetree mechanic:

For decades now, every neighbourhood had their local shadetree mechanic. That man (or woman) that did their own oil changes, replaced their own brakes and generally did most, if not all, of their own repairs on their personal vehicles. These handy types would even help out a neighbour or a friend for a few beers and some good company or maybe a few dollars if the job was a long drawn out one that needed special tools or expertise.

But the days of the shadetree mechanic are now numbered, not necessarily due to the lost interest of your fellow neighbour, but due to the complexity and computers built into the modern car.

This is a term that will be completely removed from our lexicon in the near future, and in my opinion, it’s too bad.

7 thoughts on “Word Nerd Wednesday: The Shadetree Mechanic

  1. smkoseki says:

    This is a funny post for me. …north…she was bewildered. & actually a black thing?. Because where I grew up (north) everyone worked on cars yet I still heard the term (didn’t know blacks; aside: my 4 yo son stared and called the first black person he saw “chocolate man!” :-), no TV, what can I say). Anyway we would have a half-dozen rigs apart in our yard (we ranked our “cylinder count” as a status symbol say 50 was good, heh) & would get teased about being “white trash” (or “WT”). But I grew up with only whites so I was perplexed by the term. To us, a skilled mechanic is a real stud, a cynosure, a man of mark (German roots, methinks?).

    But to the post: the real reason cars are not worked on today is not complexity (it makes them easier to fix IMO, esp w/ utube). Rather, it’s they are just far more reliable, making the investment of tools/knowledge not really worth it anymore for most. Also, no yard and rent codes prevent parking more and more. Also, like hunting or camping, mechanics tend to be a “white culture thing” (like pride of the blacksmith of old) and as the white boomers go extinct many “white” things are are going away (like St. Patrick’s Day replaced by Cinco de Mayo, football replaced by soccer. Although some Hispanic hot-rod culture leans mechanic too. Nearly every modern cultural shift has come from the baby boom being followed by the boomer baby bust & then immigration.


  2. Elspeth says:

    @ smk:

    I meant the actual term as spoken was new to her, not the idea of people doing their own mechanic work. Almost every person over 40 is fully acquainted with men and families with a skilled mechanics.

    I married such a guy and yes. He’s a real stud. 😅😅


  3. smkoseki says:

    Heart, my image was always some guy baking in TX under a lone tree…Your pic looks like he could actuall use some sun :-). But everyone from the “South” in my area is from TX or AR or LA…it’s amazing how warped my cultural understanding is…we use the same words but they mean different things to us all…


  4. Elspeth says:

    @ hearthie:

    I actually saw that image in the flesh a lot as a kid, comparatively less as an adult, but that guy still exists.

    But yeah, this was a post specifically about the word and its usage (hence Word Nerd Wednesday) and it was quite commonly used around me. Sometimes it was used positively, other times as a perjorative. Case in point:

    Just yesterday my sister was complaining about the guy who fixed her car. He’d don a fine enough job fixing it. Problem solved, but on the business end , she was not happy with the way he had handled himself. First question my husband asked as I relayed the information to him was:

    “Does she have any recourse with the garage, or did she use a shadetree mechanic?” LOL.

    And that’s usually the context in which I’ve heard it used as a perjorative; when someone has a financial or business dispute with the mechanic in question. I haven’t much heard it used to disparage their work.

    Anyways, it’s just ne of those lexical things that I encountered this week which made me consider the way language is used and how its usuage dffers regionallly.


  5. hearthie says:

    @ SMK Oh all us SoCal-ers are pretty brown. You should see my pix through HS. I will probably get a good bit lighter if and when we move *somewhere else*. (Ah, for that blessed day). Hm. That means my daughter will probably glow in the dark…

    But we don’t have TREES. Not proper trees. Trees that belong where they’re planted. I guess we have a few live oaks on the banks of rivers… everything else is imported, watered, petted, and will die in short order without care. Not proper trees at all. No tree network. No soul. We don’t, therefore, have phrases with “tree” in them.

    I can, however, use the word “gnarly” in several ways, and yes – “dude” IS used on everything and everyone, including inanimate objects.

    @Elspeth I’ve *never* heard it to disparage a mechanic.


  6. smkoseki says:

    H: I’ve *never* heard it to disparage a mechanic.
    That’s the only way I’ve heard it used, not disparage so much just to distinguish DIY from the pro. And we don’t have trees either…and use gnarly yes.


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