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Chirps and squeaks? It's just car talk

The complex phonics of automobiles speaks to the bird-watcher in him.

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I was about to drive our new van off the car lot several years ago when a sales staffer waved me back to the dealership.

"There's one thing I forgot to give you," she told me as she pressed a small pamphlet into my hands. "If the van ever makes a noise that needs fixing, this will help you explain what you're hearing."

I opened the brochure and saw that it contained a small glossary of car noises and brief definitions.

The terms ranged from "booming," defined as a "rhythmic sound like a drum or distant thunder," to "whining," which was listed as a "high-pitched buzzing sound." But as I glanced over the text, all I could manage was a sigh of confusion, perhaps best described as "a low, deflating sound, like air slowly escaping from a tire."

Sensing my puzzlement, the sales lady shrugged and confessed that she was just following protocol.

"Apparently, we've had people come into dealerships for repairs who don't know a chirp from a squeak or a hiss from a hum," she explained. "The folks in Detroit make us give these to all the customers so that everybody's on the same page."

My eyes darted around the lot for a few moments as I looked for the hidden lens that would reveal my presence on "Candid Camera." But as the sales lady kept a straight face and wished me luck, I realized that the slender dictionary of car noises I'd just placed on the dashboard wasn't meant as a joke.

The pamphlet proved more intriguing to me than the vehicle we'd just bought, so I was happy to let my wife test drive our purchase as I parsed the difference between "clanking," a "banging sound, like something being dropped," and "tapping," a "light hammering noise, sometimes rhythmic or intermittent."

The glossary charmed me because I'd read much the same thing within the pages of my "Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds," famous for the late Roger Tory Peterson's lyrical attempts to transcribe bird song into phonetic equivalents.

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