Terms and phrases from trains and railways
We’ve been letting the train take the strain when it comes to moving ourselves or goods from A to B for around 200 years. Although there were locomotive steam engines (that is, engines that moved as opposed to fixed ones) in operation some years before George Stephenson’s pioneering invention the Rocket was launched in 1829, the Rocket’s design was so successful that it became the prototype for subsequent steam locomotives.
This opened up a whole new era of mass transport in the 19th century: railways began to snake their way across continents and enabled fast, inexpensive, and convenient travel. During the 20th century, the coal-fired steam engine was gradually replaced by ones powered by diesel, electricity, or a combination of both, but the heritage of steam power lives on in our language, as we shall shortly discover.
The impact of train travel on everyone’s lives has ensured that a wealth of words and phrases with their origins in railways have become familiar English vocabulary. When you ride the gravy train, railroad someone into doing something, or your plans become derailed, you don’t need to be anywhere near a railway because these expressions have gained metaphorical meanings.
However, just as my previous blog posts explored the hidden origins of expressions derived from aviation and the age of sail, this post will look at some words and phrases whose roots in the world of trains are now obscure, or at least less obvious, to most people.
Hit the buffers
His ambitious reform plans had hit the buffers.
To hit the buffers is a British English idiom and is used to describe situations in which something which was previously flourishing suddenly stops being so. A buffer (known as a bumper in the US) on a railway is one of a pair of metal devices that project from a beam at the end of a railway track. They absorb the shock when the train comes into contact with them and prevent the train from running off the end of the track.
The expression to hit the buffers nicely encapsulates the idea of something coming to an abrupt stop when encountering a solid obstacle, just as a train comes to a halt when it reaches the buffers at the end of the line. Buffers are also found on the front or rear of a railway carriage, wagon, etc., where they perform the same shock-absorbing function.
This word comes from North American English, and was first used as a noun to refer to a small town, typically a minor one in the middle of nowhere. Such places were served by the railway, but they weren’t important enough for trains to make scheduled halts at them: an incoming train would sound its whistle as it approached the station, and if there were passengers or goods to be picked up, the station attendant would raise a signal to inform the train driver that a stop was necessary. Another explanation is that a passenger who wished to get off the train would tell the conductor, who would sound a whistle as a signal to the driver to stop.
Whistle-stop has been recorded as an adjective since the 1940s, especially in the phrase a whistle-stop tour. Such a journey was originally undertaken by US politicians, who needed to reach as many voters as possible in a short time during an election campaign. They travelled the country by a chartered train, giving a speech at many obscure towns en route. The politician rarely left the train, often making a speech from a rear platform of a carriage, before speeding on to the next small community.
Nowadays, whistle-stop is used to describe any journey, visit, or tour that involves several brief halts and is undertaken within a short space of time:
He arrives here fresh from performing a concert in Glasgow and from a whistle-stop visit to Australia.
The influence of steam-powered transport, whether locomotives or ships, was pervasive in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is reflected in several current well-known phrases, including the pair below:
- to let off (or blow off) steam: the literal meaning of this expression relates to using a valve or similar device to release steam to ease the pressure that has built up in the boiler. If this is not done, a dangerous build-up of pressure would result. Today, we use the phrase to refer to doing something that enables us to release excess energy or to express strong emotion: take up kickboxing, so you can let off steam.
- to run out of steam: if someone or something runs out of steam, it means that the impetus or enthusiasm to continue has been lost (there were signs that the once-booming economy was running out of steam). This figurative phrase is recorded as early as 1836 in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The literal meaning refers to a situation in which a steam locomotive would gradually slow down or stop because the fire that powers the boiler isn’t burning fiercely enough for steam to be produced.
In British English, a lorry is a large heavy motor vehicle used for transporting goods by road (what speakers of North American English call a truck). However, the word began life in the 1830s as a term for a truck or wagon used on railways and tramways:
There was a luggage lorry … between the engine and carriages for passengers.
The current meaning (namely, a road vehicle) isn’t recorded in the OED until the early 20th century. The origin of the word lorry isn’t certain – it may derive from the man’s name Laurie, or it may come from a dialect verb lurry, meaning ‘to pull or drag something’.
He moved to some jerkwater town to teach drama to High School teens.
This colourful adjective, meaning ‘insignificant, small, remote’ and found in North American English, harks back to the early days of steam locomotives in that continent. The railway served many remote settlements: the boilers of the engines needed a regular supply of water to produce the steam, and water towers were only found in larger towns. The locomotive crew therefore had to stop the train by a watercourse and drop a bucket with a rope attached into the stream to ‘jerk’ the water out and thus resupply the boiler.
My blog has reached the end of the line: if you’re reading this on your smartphone, stranded because of the wrong sort of snow or leaves on the tracks, then I hope I’ve provided some diversion from your plight!