Word of the Month: Phaeton

David Zapatka

Reader, friend and fellow pickleball enthusiast, Bob Zimmerman, suggested a fascinating word with an interesting history for this month’s column; phaeton.

Having driven a beautiful Phaeton motor home for many years after retiring, Bob researched not only the RV amenities, he wanted to know all about its namesake as well.

Of all the characters in Greek mythology called Phaethon, the best known was the son of the solar deity Apollo or Helios. When Phaeton (“the shining one”) finally learned who his father was, he went east to meet him. He induced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the heavens for one day. The horses, feeling their reins held by a weaker hand, ran wildly out of their course and came close to the earth, threatening to burn it. Zeus noticed the danger and with a thunderbolt he destroyed Phaeton. Phaeton fell into the legendary river Eridanus where he was found by the river nymphs who mourned him and buried him. The tears of these nymphs turned into amber. For the Ethiopians however it was already too late; they were scorched by the heat and their skins turned black.

A sporty open carriage popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was named the Phaeton. Drawn by one or two horses, a Phaeton typically featured a minimal body very lightly sprung atop four extravagantly large wheels. With open seating, it was fast and dangerous, giving rise to its name, drawn from the mythical Phaeton. With the advent of the horseless carriage, the term was adapted to open touring cars, also known as phaetons.

Today’s most popular phaeton is certainly the one Queen Elizabeth II travels to and from the annual Trooping the Color ceremonies at the Horse Guards Parade commemorating her official birthday and the Beating Retreat, a British military ceremony dating back to the 16th century. This very special phaeton, an ivory-mounted carriage, was built in 1842 for her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Sighting Queen Victoria in her single white-donkey-drawn phaeton was a treasured moment for British citizenry and can be found today in paintings and photographs of the Queen.

The flamboyant and controversial figure, Valerie Susan, Lady Meux, not to be outdone by anyone, made sure she was seen about London by driving herself around town in a high phaeton drawn by two zebras.

Introduced in 2002, Volkswagen unveiled their premium class vehicle, the Phaeton, as a way to compete with Mercedes and BMW. Phaeton, the mythological figure, the carriage, the horseless carriage, the royal carriage, the premium car and the luxury RV lives on today as a desirable possession.

Should you see Bob sometime, ask him about his Phaeton. He has many fond memories to share.

Please submit any thoughts you may have on this month’s column or any word you may like to share with our readers along with your insights and comments to [email protected].