Scooter or motorcycle ?
Correct me if I’m wrong on this. I’m not an engineer, but I don’t think you need to be to think these things through.
For many years I have been bothered by the Japanese use of “motorbike” or “autobike” to mean both a scooter and a motorcycle. Over the years it has caused a few miscommunications - incidences that I can count on the fingers of just one hand. At first I vigorously tried to correct everyone, but gave up on that folly long ago. And, I sometimes use the word “autobike” to try to be clearer, without success.
I remember a case in the mid-1990s when I was teaching a private class of housewives in a community hall’s rental room one evening a week. After one class one of the housewives said that she rode to class on her “motorcycle.” I was impressed and
“You ride a motorcycle? Really?!” I didn’t say “Wow!, but that’s what I was thinking.
When we left the building after class and walked out onto the street I asked her to show me her motorcycle. I looked around.
“Here it is.”
I looked around.
I looked around.
Two meters in front of me she put her hand on the handlebar of a parked scooter and it dawned on me.
Japanese call both a scooter and a motorcycle by the same word, just as they call a frog and a toad by the same word. But am I wrong to believe that they are obviously and distinctly different - the vehicles as well as the amphibians? I don’t think so. But what, if anything, is it a sign of? Is it due to a paucity of vocabulary on the part of Japanese? An over-abundance of synonyms? A deliberate Japanese cultural/linguistic conspiracy to be vague? A confusion about the difference between a scooter and a motorbike (or a frog and a toad)? A sloppy, uncaring harvest of English loanwords? Is the source of confusion within English itself, since a motorcycle can variously be called a “motorcycle, ”a “motorbike” or just a “bike”?
It’s important to me because, while I acknowledge the legitimate existence of synonyms, I believe that each word has its meaning, that it deserves to have its own meaning, and that words are important. Why are words important? Because like Peter O’Toole said as the imperial tutor Reginald R.J. Johnston in The Last Emperor (1987), “If a man cannot say what he means then he cannot mean what he says, and a gentleman always tries to mean what he says.”
“Are you a gentleman, Mr. Johnston?”
“I try to be, Your Majesty.”
(Professor Johnston, a Scot, was teaching the young emperor the difference between a kilt and a skirt. “A matter of words, perhaps. But words are important.”)
So I have watched scooters and motorcycles on the streets here with a purpose to understanding their difference using only the fantastic power of my brilliant, analytical ape brain. I see that some scooters have really large engines, larger even than some motorcycles. Similarly, I know that there are some motorcycles that have engines larger than some four-wheel cars. But in considering the design of a scooter I had a eurekamoment about motorcycle and bicycle design versus scooter design.
Bicycles and motorcycles do not move by pushing, they pull (“hiku”). Many people think that when they ride their bicycles they are pushing themselves forward by pedaling forward, and this is evident in the language used to describe how we “push” down, or “push” forward on the pedals. But the engineering is that the pedals are attached to the chain which pulls the rear wheel forward. We do not directly operate the wheel. We directly operate the pedal, the pedal drives the chain, and the chain pulls the rear tire. So when you ride a bicycle you think you are going forward by pedaling forward. The chain actually extends backwards, not forwards, and it is pulling the rear wheel forward, thus driving the entire mechanism forward. Even that word, “drive,” sounds like pushing. I have seen some exotic bicycles with forward-extending chains and reclining saddles, making the rider almost to lie on his back while pedaling. I suppose it is engineered to make more efficient use of energy - either through the streamlining of the vehicle, or the effect of a shifted center of gravity, or taking advantage of the ability of the legs of function in a different position. Even so, if the chain extends forward it stilloperates by pulling, but this time it is the bicycle frame that is chasing the front wheel.
Motorcycles have centrally-mounted engines with a rear-ward extending chain to pull the rear wheel forward just like a bicycle. The mechanics are the same except that with a bicycle the power is physical kinetic energy, while with a motorcycle it is an internal combustion engine. In motion the rear wheel is constantly chasing the pedal, but never catching up because the hub is fixed firmly to the frame.
A scooter is a two-wheeler with a rear-mounted engine that pushes (“osu”) you along, the opposite of a motorbike. I think the position of the engine is an important clue to the mechanics, but since I cannot see the engine the same way that I can see the engine of a motorcycle, I could be way wrong on this point.
I understand that the position and concealment of the scooter engine means that my assumptions are not necessarily so. You see, cars can have either rear- or forward-mounted engines. Cars are usually rear-wheel drive vehicles, meaning that the energy is translated from the forward-mounted engine through a driveshaft to pull on the rear tires, just like the chain of a bicycle or a motorcycle. But just as with the novelty bicycle, a front-wheel drive car still moves by pulling. Doesn’t it?
Jet aircraft operate by pushing. The jet engines take in air and push it out very fast as exhaust. So it pushes the plane forward. But a propeller plane operates by
pulling because the propellers cut into the air in front to drag the fuselage forward - very quickly, of course, but its still pulling, not pushing.
Of course, I might be totally wrong about everything by placing too much trust in my monkey brain.
Incidentally, all this talk of pushing and pulling reminds me of the “Push-me-pull-you” animal - a kind of two-headed llama - in the Doctor Dolittle (1967) movie starring Rex Harrison. I loved that move when I was a child.