Q From Peter Piecuch: Help settle a family argument about gandy dancer. Most dictionaries define it as a railroad worker, but state that the origin is unknown. Most encyclopaedias don’t list it at all. I seem to have once read that the origin relates to the first automated track-laying machine manufactured by the Gandy Corporation of Chicago.
A There’s much doubt and confusion about this wonderfully named person. Most of the references do connect him with railways and more specifically make him a member of a railway track-laying or maintenance crew, though his precise job has been variously identified. The term is first recorded in 1918 in that general sense. It's such an arcane term of the rail business that it wasn’t often encountered; when it was, it was explained variously as a shift boss, section hand or track labourer.
However, the earliest known reference is more specific:
Inquiry of an Italian employee of the bureau elicited the information that a “gandy dancer” is a railway worker who tamps down the earth between the ties, or otherwise “dances” on the track.
Outlook, 26 Jun. 1918. British readers would prefer to use sleeper rather than tie. It is very unlikely that earth was used to tamp them: the usual ballast was small stones (rocks for Americans).
Some other early references also mention a dancing action but I suspect were from people who saw the man from a distance and couldn't be sure exactly what he was doing. Such descriptions leave the matter somewhat unclear. So I'm indebted to Jeff Allen, who e-mailed me this memory in September 2012:
My late father worked the summer of 1953 as a gandy dancer. His explanation for the name was that a tool used to lift the tie was called a gandy, which looked like a spoon without a wide end. You had to wedge it under the tie, then walk out the length of the tool, and jump up and down to leverage the tie up so ballast could be shovelled under it. It was a very difficult job. If you weighed less than 160 pounds, you couldn’t do it, while if you weighed more than 185 pounds, you’d “spring” too much and get thrown off. He said the entire time you were flexing the gandy, you’d absorb as much spring as possible with your legs, while working to the rhythm of a chanted sing-song that was used by the two shovellers to time their “throw” of rock under the tie.
Considering the physical action involved and the accompanying work chant, this must have looked a lot like dancing to the uninformed onlooker.
That’s one half of the term explained. But why gandy? It may have been based on some arcane item of railway slang now lost to us. The idea that it referred to a Chicago business named the Gandy Manufacturing Company — which supposedly supplied tools to railway workers — seems to rest on a reference in a book called Railroad Avenue by Freeman H Hubbard, published in 1945. Several people have searched for this business, but have failed to find any trace of it in railway trade journals or Chicago city directories of the period. However, a number of otherwise reputable works continue to give this as the source. Some writers have suggested that gandy may be a corrupted form of gander, from the nodding heads of the workers using the tool, implying that the tool was named after the gandy dancer who used it. But this is no more than guesswork, I’m afraid.
Some recently unearthed earlier examples have taken the term back a few years but in a different context. For example:
Now a gandy-dancer is a bewhiskered man who has no occupation. He is not a floater. A classification would place him a little less than a loafer and a degree, perhaps, above a bum.
The Kansas City Times, 14 Sep. 1915. Thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding this.
In the 1920s, gandy dancer was applied to a petty crook. There is likely to be a link. It is probable that a gandy dancer at this period was a casual labourer, seasonally employed, who might very well have been a hobo or tramp for the rest of the year. This is supported by the term turning up several times in the 1920s in glossaries of hobo and tramp slang.