Jargon is everywhere, no matter what field of work you’re in or what your hobbies are.
Sometimes, though, common jargon words can have a problematic origin.
As an example, let’s look at the phrase “ricer car,” commonly used in the car tuning community.
What is a “ricer car” and should this term be used?
A “ricer car” is a phrase some people use to describe cheap cars, typically made by Asian manufacturers, that have been modified in a tacky or garish way by their owners. Although the term is somewhat common, and is now used to refer even to non-Asian cars, its origins make it a pejorative term with racist origins. It’s useful to know what this phrase means in case you hear it, but you probably shouldn’t add it to your own vocabulary.
What does “ricer car” mean?
The phrase “ricer car” is used in the hobbyist car tuning community, where people make modifications to cars to either improve their efficiency or make them look more impressive. Put simply, when people talk about a “ricer car” they are talking about a car that has been extensively modified.
In particular, they mean that the modifications to the car are tacky, nonfunctional and expensive, or that the owner has done a really bad job with their modifications.
Other similar terms you may hear include just “ricer,” as well as “rice burner.” Sometimes people will also refer to a car as “riced up” or “riced out.”
However, don’t rush out to add these phrases to your own vocabulary. As we’ll soon see, despite the general way they are used today, they originate in anti-Asian racism.
These example show typical ways you might hear the phrase “ricer car” used in casual conversations.
What is the origin of “ricer car”?
The first use of this term is unknown, but it starts to appear more frequently in the early 2000s, and today it is fairly common amongst people who spend their time and money modifying their cars as a hobby.
According to the Rice University Neologisms Database, for instance, the term is a blend of “rich” and “racer,” because of how expensive it is to modify a car this extensively.
On some online forums, the word “rice” is explained as being an acronym for “Race Inspired Cosmetic Enhancement,” but this is likely a backronym (an acronym created after the fact to explain what a word means) rather than its actual origin.
Although the suggestion of “rich” and “racer,” and the RICE acronym, are compelling, linguists and most in the car tuning community agree that this word actually comes from
The racist origins of “ricer car”
The word “ricer” has likely origins in another, similar term, “rice burner.” This word first began to appear in British motorcycle magazines in the 1960s to refer to Japanese motorcycles.
The comparison of vehicles made in Japan, where rice is a staple food, to “rice burners” was essentially intended to suggest that Asian products were inferior to European ones and, by extension, that Asian people were inferior to European people.
In the 1970s, “rice burner” began appearing in the US as well, when the Japanese-made Honda Accord began to cut into the profits of American-made automobiles.
Just as in the UK, the term had clear racist connotations, even if the people using it did not intend them.
In a similar way, when car tuning (and the closely associated pasttime of street racing) became a popular hobby in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the word “ricer” was used to refer to people who raced in, or made modifications to, Asian cars instead of domestic vehicles that were supposedly faster, more powerful and more aesthetically pleasing because of their American origin.
By extension, the term could also be used to refer to a car driven by a person of Asian origin, making it much more obviously racist.
Today, “ricer car” is used to refer to any kind of tacky modification, regardless of whether the manufacturer or driver of a car is from Asia.
Is “ricer car” offensive today?
The answer to this question depends upon who you ask.
There are many people within the car tuning community who do not even know that the word has a racist origin, and in fact we were able to find several Japanese-Americans who said they use the term themselves and don’t think it’s racist.
That being said, there are many people who do consider the term racist, arguing that no matter what the term means currently it is impossible for it to completely leave behind the derogatory nature of its original meaning.
Outside the car tuning community, where people might not be familiar with this word, it is much more likely to be considered offensive.
As always when there is ongoing debate about a word being offensive, it’s safer to just not use “ricer car” or its related words.
There’s just too much of a chance that someone will misunderstand and assume you are racist, even if to you the term has nothing to do with Asian people or cars.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.