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Between the Lines

Earlier this week I awoke to hear a BBC radio newsreader describing how a bomb scare had closed a number of London train stations, so stamping what some people would regard as the formal imprimatur of acceptability on one of our less commented-upon imports from the USA.

Until very recently, the standard British expression has been railway station, a term which had been in use since the early days of passenger transportation on rails, and which is still usual among people over the age of about 40. The OED’s first citation is from 1838, eight years after the world’s first passenger station was opened in Manchester on 15 September 1830, but which must surely have been employed earlier.

The word railway itself is rather older, first used in the 1770s. The idea of moving goods by wagons running on parallel sets of rails goes back to the sixteenth century at least, but these early routes had wooden rails (or even stone ones at times, as at Bovey Tracey in south Devon) and were usually called wagonways or tramways. The shift in emphasis that led to the use of the word rail instead was partly due to the increased use of the technique in the colliery routes in north-eastern England, which came to be called lines of rails, but I suspect was most strongly influenced by the introduction of iron rails in the late eighteenth century. They became known as rail ways or rail roads, at first two words, using the word rail in its sense of “rod; bar”. This comes from an old French word reille, “iron bar”, whose Latin precursor regula, “straight stick, rod”, has also bequeathed us regular and rule. At first railway and railroad were used pretty much equally, but by the 1830s the former had prevailed in British English, though the latter was taken to North America and became the dominant term there.

Incidentally, when cast iron began to be employed in colliery tramways in the mid eighteenth century — as a result of the new manufacturing method using coke that had been pioneered by Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire — it was cast into flat plates, usually with a flange. The men who laid this kind of track came rapidly to be known as plate layers and this name persisted as the standard British English term for the men who maintain the track, the permanent way in British railway jargon, even after the iron began to be cast into the form of rails instead.

A similar example of the conservative use of language can be found in the name for the conveyances on the new passenger railways. They were called carriages by analogy with horse-drawn vehicles, and this remains the standard term in British English for rail-drawn vehicles, specifically those containing seating for passengers (for which American English would use coach). American English has the general term car for railway vehicles, which British English only uses in compounds, such as restaurant car or sleeping car. (Incidentally, car is not an abbreviated form of carriage but a quite distinct word; they came from the Latin original by different routes, car being a very general term for any wheeled conveyance.)

As early drawings show, the design of British railway carriages was actually based on the enclosed carriages of the time and looked exactly like stage coaches on rails; unsurprising, as there were plenty of coach builders about who knew exactly how to create a vehicle of that type (a similar example of fabricational conservatism can be seen in the Iron Bridge over the Severn in Shropshire, which is fastened together exactly as though it were made in wood). A similar effect is apparent in the early days of the motor car, but at least we have been spared the cumbersome name of horseless carriage.

A station is a place, etymologically speaking, where one stands. It derives from the Latin statio, “a standing”, from which we also obtain stand and stationer (the latter was originally a trader who kept a permanent stall instead of moving about like a pedlar; since most were booksellers the term came to apply specifically to them and only later weakened to the modern sense of “office requisites”). Station had been in use since medieval times for a place at which ships are based and for military posts. The railway sense came from the later meaning of “a stopping place on a journey” and later still “a regular stopping place on a route”, which originated in river traffic in the USA and was imported into Britain in the early nineteenth century (the first recorded use in Britain for railways is by Henry Booth in his Account of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway of 1830).

As for train, that is a word with a long history. It derives from French words meaning “to drag; pull; draw along”. It came into English in the fourteenth century in the sense of “delay”, but was then applied to something that is dragged along, such as an extended part of a robe or skirt which trails on the ground. It soon took on the additional sense of a retinue or group of attendants trailing along behind some person of importance, and also of the artillery and wagons of equipment that travelled with an army, so leading to phrases such as train of artillery and, much later, wagon train. Out of this came the idea of a number of persons or things travelling one behind the other. When the first railways were constructed, the phrases train of wagons and train of carriages were employed and these were quickly abbreviated to our modern standard term.

The first railways were built entirely by hand labour by teams of navvies. This term first appeared in print in 1832, but must have been in spoken and informal use much earlier, certainly during the four years that it took to build the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The word is a diminutive of inland navigator, referring to the men who built the canals that preceded the railways. The navvies had a vocabulary all their own: the more highly-paid getters or pickmen undercut the rock and earth on the side of the cutting using pick and shovel so that a lift of material was dislodged; fitters or shovellers threw the spoil into trucks (they called it muck, originally “manure; excrement” but by then just “dirt”, deriving from an ancient Germanic word meaning “soft” that has also given us midden and meek; the older sense survives in the farmer’s muck spreading).

The navvies were organised under gangers, men who organised the gangs of labourers. This word seems originally to have meant “a going; a journey” (cognate with the German participle gegangen and with gangway, which originally meant “a way for going”). Gang seems to have later developed a sense of “something taken on a journey” and later still “a set of articles carried together” (it retains this sense in terms such as gang mower in which several sets of mower blades are driven in unison from one engine) and so to “a group of persons”.

The navvies’ work was hard and often dangerous; they were exploited by their employers, who often forced them to get their food at the hated truck shops. Truck derives from the old French troquer meaning “to barter; give in exchange” (hence the US usage of truck farm for a market garden, because its produce was often bartered rather than sold; it has nothing to do with vehicles). It was applied to the practice of paying workmen in food or other goods instead of money. Railway contractors gave vouchers instead of wages that were redeemable for food and other necessities only at the company store at inflated prices; this abuse was stamped out at the end of the century after much legislative effort, most of it ineffective. The expression to have no truck with (something), meaning “to have nothing to do with (it)” derived from a closely-related sense of truck as “dealings; communication”. Another name for the truck shop was tommy shop which came from the use of Tommy for food; this can be traced back to an eighteenth-century soldiers’ and workmen’s term brown Tommy for a kind of coarse bread or food taken to work each day.

One of the techniques used to maximise the value of the truck system for the contractors (some made more out of their tommy shops than they ever did from the construction contracts themselves) was to pay the navvies only once a month, thus encouraging them to get into debt. At pay days, it was common for navvies not to return to work until their wages had been spent on drink (which usually took three or four days). Such drinking sprees, often resulting in drunken riots, were called randies, a word which may have been an abbreviation of rendezvous, but nobody knows for sure.

Railways have the closest association with another sort of truck. This has a quite different derivation, being from the Latin word trochus (originating in a similar Greek word) meaning “to run”. It was first applied to the small wheels on which gun carriages moved (if a fighting man said in the eighteenth century that an enemy shot had taken off a gun’s truck, he meant the wheel had come off); it is closely related to truckle (a truckle bed was one which could be moved about on little wheels like castors). So, by extension, a truck came to mean anything with wheels on that was used to shift things about.

A bogie is a British railway term for a wheeled truck or frame under a long carriage or engine that can swivel to help the vehicle around curves. It is of obscure origin, possibly from a northern British dialect word, but certainly has nothing whatever to do with the supernatural. In the USA, I gather the word is generally applied to the equivalent unit on a large road vehicle, but not to a railway one, which is called, confusingly but logically, a truck. Such differences of vocabulary are extensive and too often remarked on to need much elaboration: caboose, baggage car, diner, flatcar, gondola, boxcar, tank car, freight train, tie, and switch are all words known to British English speakers only from imported cultural references in books, music and films, while in Britain we have terms such as guard’s van (used both for caboose and baggage car), goods wagon, tanker wagon, sleeper, points and goods train.

Most of these terms, in either country, are fairly obvious, but the term gondola puzzles me. My most detailed reference for US railway terms is The Railroad Dictionary of Car and Locomotive Terms, which I found in a museum in California. Its description of a gondola is extensive:

The common gondola car is a freight car with low sides and ends, a solid floor, and no roof. It is used mainly for transportation of coal, iron and steel products and other lading not requiring protection from the weather. Special types of gondola cars are built with high sides (for coal), removable covers (for steel or aluminum coils), and other attachments for some specialized service.

The only British equivalent of that I know is the generic term goods wagon. If any railway buff knows better, I shall be glad to hear.

But why gondola? It seems from the OED’s citations that the word was transferred from the term most familiarly applied to the Venetian flat-bottomed boat (whose name derives from a local dialect word meaning “rock; roll”; an alternative origin in the medieval Greek kontouros, meaning “short; clipped; dock-tailed” seems not now to be accepted). In the late eighteenth century it was also applied in the US to a flat-bottomed river boat. The first records for its use in connection with railways comes from the US in the 1880s; the first citation in the OED says “The use of the word for a peculiarly shaped railroad-car is not unknown in England” which implies that the early vehicles were not the simple rectangular design that I had assumed, for these could scarcely be described as “peculiarly-shaped”. My guess is that the early trucks were actually slightly cigar-shaped (having blunt points at each end) which is the shape that we associate with the gondola and which is why the word was also applied at about the same time to the passenger compartment slung under an airship.

In Britain, we don’t have such gems of railway vocabulary as jerkwater, now used in the US in phrases like jerkwater town or jerkwater college to describe an insignificant or inferior place. This comes from the need for early locomotives to be frequently replenished with water. In remote areas there were no facilities for doing this. Some writers on language, and some dictionaries, say that train crews carried buckets attached to ropes which they used to jerk water out of the streams they passed. A calculation (for which I’m indebted to John Urban) suggests this is hardly a practical way of filling even a small locomotive boiler. It seems more probable that it referred to a system by which water troughs were fitted between the rails from which a locomotive could scoop up supplies without stopping (jerkwater is first recorded in 1878, while the troughs, called track pans in the US, date from 1870 in that country).

Until recently, as I said, the almost total separation of terms between British and American English would have applied also to train station. But it appears that the term is relatively new even in the USA, where railroad station was once the norm. But train station is old enough there for us to be sure of the direction in which it has travelled, and vigorous enough to oust the older term. Perhaps its introduction followed the logic of one of my younger staff. When I pointed out some years ago that she used train station, she replied that of course that was the right term: she caught a bus at a bus station, and so she would expect to board a train at a train station. Obvious really. Why didn’t we all think of that before?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 26 Apr. 1997
Last updated 24 Apr. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 April 1999.