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So I recently learned that the word 'vehicle' was first used in the 1650s and that got me thinking about the way in which it was first used, and whether this use would've been literal or metaphorical. But whenever I try to find any more information on the word's first usage (that we know of) I come up with nothing but people talking about the origin of the word 'car'. Maybe this question can be answered very easily and I just don't have/know about the resources to accomplish that or maybe it's impossible to answer and I will never know but I should at least try.
(As a sidenote: I will admit I'm really hoping the first use is metaphorical just because I think it's more interesting but I'm also prepared to accept that it's probably literal since the crux of my whole issue is how little info there is on the word's history and if its first use was abstract I feel like that would be considered more noteworthy and so people would... well they'd take more note. But still I'd like to know for sure).

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    The primary resource for this kind of question is the OED (as cited by Draconis in their answer). It's available online at oed.com. It is a subscription service, but access is available through many institutions and public libraries (I use my library card with North Yorkshire Public Libraries, for example).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 20:05

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The first attestation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1530s, from a translation of Galen, where it refers to the honey that a medicine can be mixed with to make it go down more easily. From around 1600 we see it used to refer to the physical form of a metaphysical essence ("The bodie, which is but the vessell, or vehicle of life.") and then for a channel that conveys some other physical thing ("The vmbilicall veine [umbilical cord] […] is the vehicle or conueigher [conveyer] of blood.").

It's in the 1640s that we first see it used in the modern sense (a device used for transporting things), but this usage was still rare until the 18th century.

Of course, these first uses were borrowing it from French, where it already had the meaning of a device for transportation (that goes all the way back to Latin). But the borrowers don't seem to have used it in that sense at first: there were other English words for that, they didn't need a French one.

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  • Thank you so much this is so comprehensive and informative!
    – Jane Doe
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 20:08
  • what a typical English-is-firstest response. "there were other English words for that, they didn't need a French one." The versimilitude of this claim is so low, why even say it?
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 10:46

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