Q From Philippa Michaelson, UK: At home we have been wondering where the phrase gravy train originated. Any help would be gratefully received.
A We in Britain are thoroughly conversant with the gravy train, a form of transport by which a person can make a lot of money for no more effort than riding on it. It was heaven-sent as an expression to be borrowed when writing in recent years about the excessive pay and bonuses of those fat cats who run the British railways. And here’s a more recent example from the Guardian last January: “Long-running attempts to clean up the European parliament’s notorious ‘gravy train’ image were scuppered yesterday when EU governments blocked a new pay and perks package for MEPs.”
Despite our happy acceptance of the phrase, it comes from across the big pond. Perhaps that’s why some British writers have expressed confusion, muddle, and doubt about its origins. Might, one pondered, have “gravy train” have been a mishearing for “gravid rain”? “Since”, he wrote, “gravid means laden with eggs, a gravid rain would seem to imply a fall of eggs (possibly laid by golden geese?) from the sky.” Ingenious, tortuous even, but about as wrong as it is possible to be. Since another form of the phrase is known, to ride on the gravy boat, you might think it started life as a joke on the name of the container for gravy placed on the table during meals, so called because it is often roughly boat shaped. But, alas for a promising theory, gravy boat in this sense isn’t recorded until the 1940s and is clearly a joke on the older gravy train. American etymologists have puzzled over it as much as anyone: Charles Earle Funk thought it might have arisen in “railroad lingo, in which a gravy run or a gravy train meant an easy run with good pay for the train crew.” This is much more probable, but unfortunately there’s no evidence to support it — none of the known appearances of gravy train refers to a literal train.
The experts do generally agree that the phrase has its source in the slang use of gravy for something easy or cushy, simple to do, or an unexpected benefit. This is recorded in the major references books as appearing slightly earlier (1910) than gravy train (1914). As a result of the digitisation of old newspapers in very recent times, I can take these dates back somewhat. For example, advice to potential advertisers appeared in The Daily Independent of Monessen, Pennsylvania, in October 1906: “If you buy right and then tell an exacting public in a clear, concise way, just as you would over your counter, you are then getting in line for good gravy.”
There is some slight evidence that gravy goes back rather further than that. If it is the source of gravy train, it would have to, because I found the latter in the Courier of Connellsville (also in Pennsylvania) in November 1895, almost two decades before the previously oldest known example: “Johnston claims that Reuben Nelson and another tall negro were in New Haven the night of the escape and that they broke into the lockup. Johnson further states that the next day Kelson laughingly told him that the New Haven lockup was ‘a gravy train.’”
But why and how do trains come into the picture? We don’t know, which leaves the matter in an uncertain and unsatisfactory state.