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The Horn Honk

For decades horn honking has been used as a way to communicate.

Horn honking is an often overlooked form of social communication.

Much like smoke signals, Morse code, or email, the  message can be miscommunicated.

This social media does not require wireless Internet access.

Unlike technology enabled social activities, like talking on your phone, texting, and checking Facebook, the honk is a more basic level of communication.

Caution: If you would like a serious, no-nonsense perspective on everything related to the horn, you may want to check Wikipedia or your city’s or state’s safety and noise regulations, or something equally as tedious to read. This is simply a short and irreverent review of horn honking.

As a language, deciphering horn honks can be rather mysterious.

The fact is, when someone honks their horn, you don’t really know if they are honking at you at all—and if they are, what exactly they are trying to say.

To make it even more of a conundrum, a horn honk in your city can be different than a horn honk you might hear when you are off visiting your aunt in a different state or while visiting another country. I’ve noticed that honking the horn really only serves to make the horn honker feel momentarily better.

Perhaps we should all rethink all this non-emergency horn honking.  Until the complete etiquette of horn honking is more formalized, I’ve prepared some horn honking basics to prepare you for your next road trip.

How to Speak Horn


A “tap” is a light application of pressure on the horn.  It is really the most effeminate kind of horn honking (you didn’t know there was such a thing, did you?), and therefore women are mostly the ones who use this method of horn honking.  Here are the different types of horn taps and what they mean:

A tap while at a light: “I don’t want to be rude, but the light has changed. Do you think you might go now?”

A tap while on the freeway:  “I see your signal and will let you in this lane…if you hurry and acknowledge this courtesy with a hand wave.”


Taps and toots are often difficult to distinguish.  However, as the amusing word “toot” signifies, toots are generally friendly honks.  You might hear a toot from your college roommate, who spots you while you are driving on the other side of the road.

Perhaps you haven’t seen him or her in years; perhaps you are driving the same car you were in college, and it is now held together with duct tape, while they are driving their brand new BMW, and the whole incident makes you reevaluate your whole life and how you’ve spent the last 20 years. Anyway, that’s what a toot can mean.


This is more serious than a tap or a toot.  Honks are rarely friendly greetings.  They are much more likely to be sounds of “Watch out!” or “Pay attention!”  The noise duration is longer.  The sound decibels are louder and more intense.  A honk may mean, “Hey, dude, slow down, there’s a cop up ahead, and even though I don’t even know you I would sure hate for you to get a ticket.”

Or, “The light has been green for 15 seconds already, so finish your text later!”  Just as with a tap or a toot, everyone within ear shot is startled and the momentary stress relief is only experienced by the “honker.”


“Blasts” are horn honks that sound rather violent—if it was possible for something to “sound” violent, that is.  These are often associated with male drivers, but that doesn’t mean that women won’t blast away on the horn as well.  There are two different categories of long and

Hard Blasts:

While at a light (this is very commonly paired with hand gestures and/or some choice words. “The light has been green for a whole minute!  What are you doing?  Why are you doing that when you’re supposed to be driving?  Oh, great.  Now it’s red.  Are you happy now?  Now we’re stuck here.  Thanks a lot. Now I’ll be late or have to drive 95 mph and if I get a ticket, that will be your fault, too.”

On the freeway (also often paired with choice words and/or hand gestures, which is actually pretty impressive if someone can do that while they’re driving at 95 miles an hour) it is a shriek or a roar of: “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!  WILL YOU SLOW DOWN AND WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING?”  Or, “GET IN YOUR OWN LANE!!!  NOT MINE!!”

The next time you are driving along and hear a toot, tap, honk, or blast, you will have a better idea of just what that other driver is trying to say.  You may not know if it is directed at you but you will be in the ideal position to tell your passenger about the interesting article you read about the language and etiquette of horns.

Happy traveling!  Toot, Toot!

Read more posts by Margaret Ross here. Margaret is a contributing blogger for JenningsWire.