“Man with a van”/”White van man”

I originally posted this in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog:

Man in van

The ABC television network has announced that in 2013 it will air a sitcom called Family Tools. Previously, the show was called Comeback Jack; before that it was called Red Van Man, and before that, it was called White Van Man. And therein lies a tale.

Like many American comedies, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Office, this one took its premise from a British original, White Van Man. If you are American, that phrase probably means nothing to you. And neither does the much older expression from which it sprang, “man with a van.”

I myself first became aware of the latter when I got an e-mail from a BBC correspondent, Michael Wendling, who was interested in Not One-Off Britishisms, the blog I conduct about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. He observed, “I was in Brooklyn recently and I saw signs for ‘rubbish removal’ and ‘man with a van.’ There was a sex shop called ‘Shag.’”

I was aware of rubbish (what we would call garbage or trash) and Austin Powers had universalized shag, but I’d never come across man with a van. I asked Michael what it meant, and he explained:

A ‘man with a van’ is a person who will move your belongings to your new flat, or take them to the rubbish tip, or any other odd jobs that need a large vehicle and an extra pair of hands. Particularly common in London where there are a lot of people moving and fewer people have cars.  Inevitably the man is Australian, and the van is white (you may have come across the related Britishism, ‘white van man’, a working class male usually employed in some sort of manual labour, avid reader of tabloids and connoisseur of full English breakfasts).

When I looked into the expressions (as how could I not?), I encountered some surprises. One would have presumed man with a van to have originated during the time when vans, as we know them, started to be manufactured—maybe the 1940s? In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of van as “A covered vehicle chiefly employed for the conveyance of goods, usually resembling a large wooden box with arched roof and opening from behind,” and locates a first citation in 1829. Man with a van was in circulation by 1876, when an article in The Times noted, “The practice of the firm was to send to customers a man with a van.” And an Australian agricultural journal wrote in 1903: “Where the factory is so situated that a man with a van could collect the cans from the different suppliers, deliver them to the factory, and bring back the empty cans at a small charge the factory should lie supported.”

White van man, meanwhile, was apparently coined by a Times writer called Jonathan Leake, who in 1997 published an article headlined “Number Is Up for White Van Man—Scourge of the Road.” It began:

He is known as White Van Man and is the most feared driver on the road. But he is about to be tamed. Transport watchdogs plan to crack down on the young male van driver who looms in your rearview mirror, comes within feet of your bumper and usually makes obscene gestures until he forces his way past. The phenomenon of White Van Man—a tattooed species often with a cigarette in his mouth, who is prone to flashing his lights as he descends on his prey—has been identified in a report by the Freight Transport Association (FTA). It says his bullying antics have now become a threat to all motorists, and it believes the problem is so serious that a nationwide re-education programme is needed, possibly backed by legislation.

Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun subsequently ran a regular feature in which a white van man, shown through the window of his vehicle, was interviewed about the issues of the day. The BBC ran a documentary about the phenomenon, and  at least two studies have been devoted to it, one comparing the frequency of bicycles being overtaken on the road by cars and white vans, and the other a seemingly half-serious, half-facetious composite portrait of the species.

When ABC started working up its sitcom, White Van Man was a reasonable working title, but even the dimmest suit could see that it would lack any meaning or resonance for American viewers. ABC cleverly put a post on its Facebook page asking people to weigh in on the alternatives it was considering: Red Van Man, Get Back Jack, Comeback Jack, The Family Tools, and Tool Guys. A surprising 118 people replied, the majority of whom actually took the task seriously. (One who didn’t was the woman who noted, “How about canceled after 3 weeks”). And ABC actually took the counsel of Annette Zaripov-Brand, who wrote, “Family Tools … no ‘The’.”

So will this show be worth watching? The plot description doesn’t fill one with hope:

Mixing family with business is never easy, and Jack Shea (Kyle Bornheimer) is about to learn that lesson the hard way. When Jack’s father, Tony (J.K. Simmons), has a heart attack and is forced to hand over the keys to his beloved handyman business, Jack is eager to finally step up and make his father proud. Unfortunately Jack’s past career efforts have been less than stellar, so everyone seems to be waiting for him to fail. …

Moreover, the online trailer suggests the dominant motif of the show will be staple-gun humor. However, a show about a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers who have to figure out what to do when the fascistic owner of a soup restaurant throws them out wouldn’t have sounded so great, either. So I will give Family Tools a shot.

Meanwhile, I have to find out what a “rubbish tip” is.

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26 responses to ““Man with a van”/”White van man”

  1. A tip is a dump. A skip is a Dumpster. A tradesman with a van, usually white (the van, that is), is called “a little man, as in “I have a little man who comes round to mend the mains.” A knacker’s van is a lorry to haul away dead animals to the knacker’s yard.

  2. Judith Kozloff

    No surprise here but White Van Man is a British class slur. Uneducated ( and proud of it) lower class male whose only qualification is a driving licence, and not always one of those judging by their reckless driving, ignoring all other road users. It has been around a lot longer than 1997, although polite society probably didn’t want to formalise the existance of these aggressive underachievers. They don’t necessarily have to have a (dirty) white van to be so classified.
    Rubbish tip is the dump.

  3. Judith is right, I’m sure that “White Van Man” has been around since way before 1997. In my experience the term is most commonly used to describe a particular bad van driver.

  4. “White van man” is a Britishism, but “man with a van” has been in pretty common use in New York for a long time. Local rock bands in particular often hire a man with a van to help them get their gear to shows around town. Likewise, people who live in small NY apartments often don’t need to hire a major moving company to haul their meager chattels from one place to another. A man with a van is often all it takes to get a move done.

  5. This post is not only educational, but also quite evocative:
    • Like yours, my big surprise was “rubbish tip.” I was wondering just last week if you’d done “rubbish,” but “tip” is new to me. Thanks to others for confirming what deduction suggests, but it still needs an explanation of origin. I suspect “tip” does not refer to, but predates, the action of a hydraulic dump truck.
    • A tool is a dolt and a dolt is a fool, and tools rhymes with jewels, so one can’t be sure what Family Tools is about without more information. It’s an intriguing multi-entendre title until explained. Therefore, I like it (the title, that is, not necessarily the show).
    • Here in Texas, a man with a van would be a guy with a pickup, a vehicle which some hereabouts would call a pick ‘em up truck.
    • The OED’s definition sounds like a “covered wagon” used by pioneers populating the American West; or more properly, a cart used by an itinerant purveyor of goods, perhaps including items of questionable value. An example in popular culture would be Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler, a character played by Eddie Albert in the film version of Oklahoma!
    • Jonathan Leake’s “Scourge of the Road” recalls the reputation acquired some years back by pizza delivery drivers, when delivery was promised “in twenty minutes or less [sic].”
    • In America, The Sun’s interviews of white van men would probably be of NYC taxi drivers.
    • BBC documentaries of same recall two I remember most from when the “L” in TLC actually stood for “Learning”: one of the London Underground (I was a bit of a map junkie back then), and another (not British, however) on a phenomenon I had never noticed previously, i.e., gap-toothed women (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095199/). Nowadays, TLC carries programs that don’t particularly match my interests.
    • The phrase, “staple-gun humor” (which I may be misunderstanding) recalls another Britcom, After You’ve Gone, in which Nicholas Lyndhurst plays a house painter (thus, my associating it with staple guns) whose wife has run off, and who is trying to raise two teenagers, with interference from his mother-in-law (the brilliant Celia Imrie).
    • And last but not least: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1lRulMdB1o. I chose this extended “once is not enough” version for its psychedelic-era images, including those of other artists of the time. By the third time around, the video runs out of images, and you may be tired of the tune.

  6. Rubbish tip=garbage dump. The tip part may go back to wheelbarrow days.

  7. Also, the tip can refer tip can refer to two different kinds of places (but still similar).

    The least common of the two is a landfill site. I think this speaks for itself.

    The second, and most common version is where you drive up to a place with your rubbish and pay to dump your rubbish. You can also take items, but you have to pay for them too. I’m not too sure what you’d call it or if it’s a bit of a British phenomenon.

    • I don’t know where you’re from but as a Brit I have to say your concept of a tip as a place where you *pay* to dump rubbish is completely alien. All local councils have a place (or several places) where you may dispose of bulky waste items, which may or may not be located in the same place as the landfill where some of it ends up. These days they are usually officially called waste recycling centres or something similar, and are a free service for household (but not necessarily business) waste. As you state, both the landfill and the place you deposit the waste (if it is at a different location) are colloquially called “tips”.

      I say this with a couple of caveats: There is sometimes a charge for certain types of waste, e.g. old tyres. Also at some tips electrical items e.g. televisions, fridges etc. are handled on by a contracted third (or fourth…) party company – in these circumstances you can sometimes buy the abandoned items back from the third party at the same location. This is the only circumstance in which your statement about “taking items” applies. You may however be talking about scrapyards, which are private enterprises where scrap (usually) metal – which may also include electrical items – can be abandoned/sold/bought. I’ve never heard a scrapyard referred to as a tip, but I’m happy to be corrected.

      Then of course there are “fly tips” – the places where people illegally abandon waste. I think the “fly” bit is probably related to doing something “on the fly” = quickly.

  8. Also, a tip is a state of untidiness, as in the refrain to teenagers: “this room is a complete tip!”

    White Van Man is mostly used in relation to his aggressive driving habits.

    A little man is invariably old: he is a skilled handiman who comes round and repairs, fits, installs and otherwise does the jobs that need experience and skill. He is usually a retired craftsman, or semi-retired.

    It is my ambition, after retirement, to be a little man for my young colleagues, who are too busy or clumsy to do things for themselves.

  9. In addition to the association with a certain style of driving, “white van man” also suggests that said tradesman may be a bit of a “fly by night”, not part of a reputable, traceable company – where the company van would probably carry name, address (physical and web) and phone details. “White van man” may well be working “cash in hand”, original contact having been made by mobile phone … the number having been passed on by a mate, or from a classified ad giving no address or landline number. If the boiler repair doesn’t last and you need to call him back in a couple of weeks time there’s a possibility that mobile phone will no longer be working, and you’ve no receipt with any other contact details.

  10. I love this blog.

    May I point out that a White Van Man and a ‘man with a van’ are not actually the same thing. A White Van Man is usually employed by someone and the van usually has the name of the company on the side – it may be an air-conditioning supplier, a courier or someone who fixes roofs. The van can be a small one or a medium-sized one, but if it’s any bigger it’s more likely to be called a lorry than a van. He drives like a bat out of hell, cuts you up on roundabouts and hurtles towards his next appointment with the sang-froid of one who knows he is immortal. And yes, it is a class thing: he’s more likely to be skilled or semi-skilled working class. He is also a social archetype.

    A ‘man with a van’ is someone you hire to move your stuff, as the first poster above has pointed out. The van may well not be white and it probably belongs to him and not an employer. He will charge you fifty quid to move your belongings rather than the kind of fees that proper removal firms charge. He probably has no insurance for moving your stuff, but that’s the risk you take. Sometimes they are nice and helpful, and sometimes they are absolute rip-off merchants who charge you more than they said they would and since you haven’t got a quote in writing you can hold them to it (do I sound bitter?). They always want to be paid in cash. A White Van Man is not usually for hire in this way.

    A propos of another post above, a ‘tool’ is actually slang for the penis and as far as I know it isn’t rhyming slang. Calling someone a ‘tool’ suggests that they are rather stupid and not very good at anything – a bit gormless, as we like to say.

    Keep up the good work!

  11. “White van man” is very specific and not quite the same as a “man with a van”. Most companies sell their vans in white as the default, cheapest colour. A white van man is, therefore, a man driving the most basic van you can get. There will be no signwriting on the side or other customisation. The van unless absolutely knew will usually be battered and uncared for. White van man is often an unskilled, itinerent worker of some sort.

    As stated above white van man is well known for his agressive and dangerous driving. He’s also known for being uneducated, boorish and bigoted.

  12. White van man is a bit more than a class slur. While “man with a van” is a job, “white van man” is generally applied not to a man in a white van, but one who acts in a particular way, generally driving aggressively and/or learing/shouting through the window at pretty girls.

  13. The main point usually, when referring to white-van-man’s poor driving over here in UK, is that because the van has no sign-writing of the employer’s business (e.g. badly driven? ring the following phone number), then their behaviour cannot be complained about, so only the Police can reign them in (and never about when needed). Marked vans are driven mostly more responsibly because of this, since they carry the reputation of the business around with them. This goes together with the old joke, whats the fastest vehicle on the road? answ: a white van.

  14. Anyone wondering why said van is white? While ‘white van man’ certainly is some kind of slur that describes the type of poor class or behaviour of the person employed driving any type of small commercial vehicle, back in the day, maybe less so now, the colour of the van would have overwhelmingly been white. The beauty of the slur is how it is in fact a double slur, the unmarked white van symbolising poverty or shoddiness, it was the cheapest option available to an uncouth loudmouth privateer van driver due to its plentiful supply as second hand fleet vehicles (the idea being that no respectable tradesman would dream of driving an unmarked white van!). While branding and marketing mean large companies will chose the colour of their vans more carefully now, in the Eighties where recently public company fleet vehicles would be ordered in the cheapest colour option, white, to cut costs, it was not uncommon to make out the marks where British Telecom, British Gas or Police decals had been on the white van that had just dangerously sped past you in total contravention of traffic laws whilst emanating a flurry of expletives.

  15. As a person over the Pond from you, I enjoy reading about your use of our expressions, but one of yours has me confused. What is “staple-gun humor”? I can make assumptions, but would be curious to know the precise facts. Thank you

  16. As an aside – ever tried buying a van that *isn’t* white in the UK? Not easy!

    • Buying a van in the UK that isn’t white is easy enough. If you’re buying new other colours are cost options. If you’re buying used there are still plenty about even though white is the most common. There is a veritable rainbow of vans on ebay right now.

  17. “Family Tools” is pretty great considering “tool” can be an insult in British (and possibly American?)

  18. As a New Yorker, I would not have survived the tumultuous 80′s were it not for “men with vans,” who moved my stuff all around the city, as rents see-sawed. I remember few of them being white, but with the graffitti and the multiple dings and other things, I guess it would have been hard to tell their color anyway.

  19. “White Van Man” is a person in a van, usually male, who has scant regard for other drivers and think highway laws don’t apply to them. Usually a courier driver with a tight deadline and schedule to keep to. In a race-off from the lights against a ferrari, White Van Man will be the first to pull away. Often regarded as a mobile menace and a thug on wheels. See a recent example of usage here: http://uk.eurosport.yahoo.com/news/cycling-van-driver-racked-guilt-wiggins-collision-111938873.html

  20. It’s also worth remembering that over here rubbish is left out for the dustmen, put in the dustcart, and taken to the tip.

  21. I was surprized by the use of “bumper” in the Times article. I thought a bumper was the thing on the road that you bounced over, and the part of the car at the rear was a fender.

  22. In British English, the “bumper” is the part of the car at the rear and front to protect the paintwork when you bump into something … so assuming the “Times” quoted is the British paper of that name, the use of bumper would be expected. Fender would normally be only used in respect of those old car tyres or orange balloon-like objects hung over the side of a boat to fend off collisions with other boats or the quayside.
    Something in the road that you bumped over would be a bump, hump, or “sleeping policeman”.

  23. @Panim @Karen:

    “The Times” newspaper quoted in the original post is clearly British (the use of “transport” over “transportation” gives that away) so it’s almost certainly “The Times” (a British newspaper published in London since 1785). It’s often referred to as “The Times of London” by American publications, but that is not its name.

    In the US, “The Times” is often used as an abbreviation of “The New York Times”, which is particularly unfortunate when discussing transatlantic differences.

  24. White Van Man has also become shorthand for a socio-economic class, in the same way that the US has soccer moms (though they of course mean something different).

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