Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Rail Has a Language That Is All Its Own

Trackworkers were referred to as "gandy dancers."

          (From New York Central Lines Magazine,  March, 1925, Page 50)
                                              By Crawford P. McGinnis
    You, who are associated with the railroad and with the people whose business is railroad -  especially the operating and mechanical divisions - when you read a newspaper article descriptive of some episode of the railroad story, written by a "penny-a-liner," you are often conscious that it is lacking in realism.  It was good, but for some reason a little flat. This is because the writer doe not "speak your language."
    Unconsciously you have built up a certain style of expression, and the most interesting situation a fiction writer can conceive is flat without that association of terms and expressions with which you are familiar. It not only lacks reality, but you are aware of the feeling that the writer is dealing with something with which he is not familiar and therefore you unconsciously refuse to enter entirely into his tale.
     All of this proves that railroad men use a vernacular which, though railroads are less than one hundred years old, is as distinctive as that of the sea, and no doubt in time will be equally as rich in words and shades of meaning. 
     Let the uninitiated drop into a railroad lunch counter some time and hear something like this:
    "Jim Skeevers had a pick-up and set-out drag last trip with the shorts on the hind end. He had one of the sport models and all she could start in the corner with the Booster cut-in.. He got a lung getting out of KY Tower and a couple of knuckles when the hog-head plugged her to keep off he derail at GO. The old mill wasn't a free steamer and the tallowpot couldn't keep her hot with the blower on when the eagle eye dropped her a little. She had only three legs hooked up and he had to bleed the stickers every time he stopped. He cut out a dynamiter at FA and hit a gun in the sag at mile post 220, so had to double over to WX which put him on 41's time getting into the clear. There he ran into the sixteen hour law and tied up. He deadheaded back and the engine crew bought back a caboose bounce to even up the power."
     A novel use of prepositions, the newest words in our language, gives us new meanings. When the conductor says he has ten minutes "on" No. 6, he conveys that he will have ten minutes more than he anticipated in order to get out of No. 6's way. Of these prepositional nuances there are many.
    Trips are re-run when railroad men get together and one can almost feel the cinders fall when Jim gives her two more notches to keep from lying down on the hill. While the lunch counter man has often to restrain  himself from ordering out the wrecker when Bill Jones tells of a "short flag" they found when dropping down to Virginia City.
     The fascination of railroading centers on the operation of locomotives and trains, for it is there that action and risk, the elements of adventure, are found, and it is natural that the wealth of the argot is confined for the most part to this department. A "washout" is a violent hand stop sign; crews are in the "chain gang" (pooled) and crews work "first in" "first out": with the extra man on the "slow board." When an engine is "lame," it is out of "tram" (tramel) and should be "squared up." A lone engine runs "light" over the division and a string of "dead" engines in tow is a "McAdoo Special."  An engine "pops" when she is "hot" and is "pumped down" with the "gun." Before the arrival of the crew an engine is in charge of a "dispatcher," formerly "hostler," and a rebuilt engine is "broken in" by an engine "tamer." Train orders are "flimsies" or tissues." The new practice of running engines "through" has produced a new verb: they are said to be "marathoned."  "High ball" freight may be "red ball" merchandise.
                                        New Terms Replace Old
     Other departments have their colloquialisms:
     The freight claims have their "O S & D's" and the repair shop "wabashes" with the "come-all-ye," a nut which will not respond to a wrench. Questions between officers and employees are handled by the "griever."
   Many terms are becoming obsolete with changes and practice.  The "stair-step" train order is disappearing, and with the advent of the electric headlight the engine no longer "covers up" when in the clear, though the expression persists in some quarters. The time table succeeds the time "card," but a run is still "carded."
     The news reporter insists on reversing the engine and "jamming down" the brakes when red markers loom up around a curve. There are few railroad men still in the harness who ever "jammed down" the brake and the engineman has long since learned that to reverse an engine with the brakes applied is to lengthen the stop. What he does is to "dynamite" her and prepare to unload. The present generation of switchmen knows the flying switch only through newspapers.  To him a switch is a "drop."
    There is, too, a well developed sign language on our railroads today by use of which car distribution can be carried on without a spoken word. There are the regulation hand and lamp signs between yard and engine crews which include the non-regulation but universally understood signs for the "kick," the "drop," to "head" and "back in," etc. But it is the sign language between the yardmen which has been most elaborately developed. They signal each other to "cut off four behind two," "pull the rip, "tale water," and so on indefinitely. "Pull the pin" is an old signal which persists. When crews are well organized and have been together for some time, they can work from the time a fresh string is "busted" until the feed sign is passed along with scarcely a spoken word.
     New expressions are introduced from time to time, some of which persist, though many are lost; it is the survival of the fittest. The writer has long wondered why a single verb meeting to "go alongside of: has not found a place in our vocabulary.  Other languages of consequence possess such a word. If  trainman has to walk the length of his train to convey some message, he says so in so many words or he says he "went up ahead" or "went back," as the case may be. If the usual equivalent were translated into English, we would have the verb "to long," from which we might expect: "He has to long the train four times last trip."
     Of course, to convert "long" or more correctly, "along," from an adverb and preposition to a transitive verb is quite a step, and it is more likely that time will produce a word of different origin. The verb "to coon" was used at one time to describe a green trainman going over the top of a moving train with the assistance of  his hands to keep from falling off,i.e., he used all "fours" and "cooned" the train.
     In European countries, each railway system has its distinctive expressions, which caused some confusion during the late war when railroad men from different lines were thrown together.  We may be thankful to our railway magazines, clubs and organizations and to our "boomer" habits for a national railroad nomenclature.

New York Central "Atlantic" No. 3000