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Two-car funeral

Q From Bill Decker: What is the story behind the expression two-car funeral?

A In US English, it usually turns up the fuller form, couldn’t organise a two-car funeral. It’s a measure of utter incompetence.

Here’s an example from the Fresno Bee of February 2004: “When is the school board going to face the reality that the administration is incapable of organizing a two-car funeral?” Sometimes the verb is manage, as here in an issue of the Cincinnati Post in January 2005: “If Bill Frist’s performance as Senate majority leader the last few weeks is any indication, he would have trouble managing a two-car funeral let alone the vast U.S. government.”

Like most such slangy expressions, trying to tie down its origins is next to impossible. It became well enough known that it began to appear in newspapers around 1971; the earliest example I’ve come across appeared in a syndicated article in several US newspapers in February 1971: “The Saigon government at that point could not organize a two-car funeral.”

The expression was in fact a less serious accusation of incompetence than couldn’t organise a one-car funeral. The earliest example of that version I’ve found is from 1968: “Alas, the world is full of bunglers. Some of them are so good they can even mess up a one-car funeral.” That’s older than the first recorded example of two-car funeral and so may be the original.

The standard British equivalent, by the way, is the more forceful couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jun. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 June 2006.