Language Lounge

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I've Been Working on the Railroad

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a little-noted event, the merger of four railroads in the United States to create the Burlington Northern Railroad, which became the longest railroad in the world by number of miles served. Since that time, the Burlington Northern has acquired the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to become BNSF (the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad). I note the anniversary as an item of linguistic curiosity, in light of the many ways that railroads and trains have made their way into popular and figurative English over two and a half centuries, and the curious fact that many young people today, especially in the United States, will have no direct knowledge of the experiences that gave rise to some of these words, phrases, and songs, despite their persistence in usage.

First, if you've never experienced it, you should experience this: a hit song from the Big Band era that plays on the delightful prosody of the phrase "on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe". It was written and made popular by Johnny Mercer, and covered by many other groups of the era:

To have a memory of riding on an AT&SF train today, you need to be in your fifties at least; its passenger operations ceased in 1971. "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Wabash Cannonball," and "City of New Orleans" are among the many other songs that celebrate trains and rides that are not available to passengers today. The last of these three songs contains the telling line, "This train's got the disappearing railroad blues." Train rides now available to Americans take place on Amtrak or on any number of metropolitan subways, light rail systems, or commuter trains. These have generally not entered the popular consciousness as experiences to be celebrated in song.

English is rich with idioms and figurative phrases that find their origin in railroads (or railways, to use the term more popular in other dialects of English). Indeed, you can find entire web pages devoted to cataloging rail-related expressions. I took a look at some of these expressions to get a handle on when they entered the language and how they have fared since that time. There were a few surprises.

First off, the verb derail. Predictably, it enters the language around 1850, when trains and railways were reaching ever-increasing numbers of people and places. Unpredictably, the word's figurative use (meaning: to obstruct progress) shows a surprising uptick in the 1980s. Around 1995, derailing efforts became a more common thing than derailing trains. All of the other most frequent objects of derail in contemporary language are a figurative, not a literal sense of the verb.

One hopes that this is due more to improving technology on trains than to declining numbers of them on the rails. Derail is particularly apt in figurative use: by virtue of the rails it travels on, a train has a destination; derailing it certainly makes that destination harder, if not impossible, to reach.

If derailment has a desirable remedy, it is surely to be back on track. The phrase is surprisingly rare in English before the 1950s and many of the uses of it before then are "false positives": in other words, occurrences of the phrase that do not exemplify the way we use it today, as can be seen in these examples:

Child in custody of father walking back on track by direction of conductor of train that carried them beyond station and struck by other train. (1902)

I saw the switchman cut off two cars at the head end and throw them back on track 20. (1904)

I don't find the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) among the several track idioms and phrases that it tracks (whoops!). The early citations of back on track closer to the way we use it today I find are in relation not to rail travel but to air travel: a 1951 book called Principles of Air Navigation has this sentence:

If it takes an alteration of 4 degrees to parallel our track, an alteration of 8 degrees can be expected to bring us back on track in the same time as we took to drift off it.

Whatever its metaphoric source, the 1950s were the decade in which getting things back on track got into the wider world. It became common to characterize anything enjoying a resumption of normality after it had been postponed, obstructed, canceled, or otherwise impeded to be back on track.

Third rail is a peculiarly American idiom that arose from the development of electric railways in which a third rail carrying current ran either in the middle of or along the outside of the two main rails. It would thus be harmful or fatal for anyone coming into contact with it. The OED finds figurative use beginning to develop in the early 20th century. The most popular use of the phrase today is in relation to politics, to characterize issues that are so controversial that "touching" them may be fatal to a politician's career. But what is the third rail of American politics? That depends on whom you ask, and when.

Corpus evidence suggests that Social Security is the third rail of American politics and this proposition has more or less achieved cliché status. But writers show some inventiveness in this regard, such as in these citations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

Anyone who thinks Social Security is the third rail of American politics has clearly never talked about firearms with an NRA member.

Well, I mean, if [immigration is] a third rail, then President Trump and Senator Tom Cotton and Senator David Perdue have jumped on it.

Donald Trump wakes up, tweets, and then stuff happens. He's on a third rail that [progressives]  can't touch.

The fact there is still some life in this idiom is probably due to the fact that Americans today are far more likely to experience a ride on an electrified train than on any other. Those who exploit the idiom can do so with the confidence that listeners, especially urban dwellers, are acquainted with what a literal third rail is.

I learned the most popular version of the American folksong "I've Been Working on the Railroad" in primary school. I couldn't relate to it directly because no one in my family had ever worked on a railroad, but I knew about trains. Freight trains terminated in my town where their empty cars were filled up with ore from the local mines, to be hauled away and replaced by other empty cars the following week. Now, more than 50 years on, the mines are closed and trains no longer serve the town. I wonder if school children still learn this song, and what images it conjures for them.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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