CULTURE WATCH : Railroad Lingo Hasn't Lost Steam


Unless you've been asleep at the switch, sidetracked, derailed or off your trolley, you've surely noticed that many railroad terms have made the grade in common American English. Despite the decline of American railroads in recent decades, such phrases still chug through our language. Here are some less obvious locomotive locutions:

* Hell on Wheels: When railroads were being built across the American West, gangs of construction workers often lived in boxcars along the route. They were joined by wagonloads of gamblers, liquor sellers, prostitutes and other hangers-on, and they formed a rolling, rollicking town that moved down the line as construction progressed. Because of its riotous revelry, such a portable community was called a "hell on wheels."

* Gravy Train: In common American speech, "gravy" has long meant "easy money." Thus, railroad workers referred to a short haul that paid well as a "gravy run" or "gravy train."

* Jerkwater Town: Early steam engines needed enormous amounts of water, and in small towns without a water tower, the train crew had to "jerk" water from local streams and ponds in buckets and carry it to the locomotive. The workers' contempt for this laborious task was reflected in their derisive term for such places.

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