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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Working on the Railroad

Words and phrases in our everyday language come from a variety of sources, many obvious to our ancestors, but foreign to us in the 21st Century. Such is the case with the plethora of terms that come from the railroading industry. Phrases like "highball," "call on the carpet," "right away," and more originated with rail travel, and this article examines some of these uses.


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One of the most fascinating times in history, in my opinion, was the event of completing the railroad linking the East to the West. This opening of the frontier meant that our ancestors were no longer restricted in where they could live. But the railroads also gave us a plethora of terms, both from the building and the running of railroads in America.

First, let us examine the primary term - railroad - and its verb form "to railroad" (e.g., no genealogist wants to be railroaded, i.e., swindled, when spending money for documents, sight unseen). This phrase is in reference to the speed with which a train travels: much faster than the horses that, up to that time, had been the primary mode of travel (Morris & Morris, p. 485). However, it is not just the speed of the train that gives this term its meaning: when the railroads were being built the track was laid at a terrific rate, with dynamiters and drillers moving through mountains and across plains and rivers with such a fervor that they seemed to care nothing for obstacles in the way (Hendrickson, p. 565). It is with that same fervor that people are said to be "railroaded" by the system when they are taken to trial (and found guilty) so quickly that there is no chance to put together a defense.

Long before the railroads ever came to America, some of our ancestors rode their own "gravy train" - a term meaning "to acquire wealth" or "become prosperous." Of course, even though stories abound in families of how an ancestor was wealthy, the fortune was usually lost long before the current generation came along to inherit! The term "gravy train" (coined in 1945) does come from railroading, where a gravy run was one that was easy, with a good pay expected for the crew ("gravy" was already in the vernacular as meaning something that was easy to obtain) (Funk, pp. 127-128). Some of us are still waiting for our proverbial "train to come in."

Now let us look at some elements of train travel and operation. Have you ever spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years, searching for that elusive ancestor, only to find yourself faced with the same brick wall over and over? Doesn't that make you want to "blow off some steam"? Well, even so, you would not literally blow steam from your nose, ears, or mouth, but most of us know what is meant by that phrase: it is some exercise that releases the buildup of pressure (often used to describe a person who is having a temper tantrum). This term comes from the early locomotives that needed a great deal of steam pressure to make headway up a steep hill. However, when the engine halted, that pressure had to be released to prevent the boiler from exploding. Hand levers allowed the engineer (or his designee) to release the steam at appropriate times, but when onlookers would see the giant engine blasting steam into the air, it was reminiscent of a person in a rage, releasing all that pent-up energy (Garrison, p. 328).

Of course, if we blow off the steam at the wrong time or place, we can expect to be "called on the carpet." We hear that term most frequently in a business environment, but its origin is the early American railroads. Prior to the railroad industry, few, if any, businesses in America warranted (or could afford) a plush office environment for their executives, but the railroads, funded by stockholders and dependent upon public trust, were run by men who saw the trappings that said "success" as a major necessity. The railroad presidents had direct contact with their employees and, when a worker found himself summoned to the office of the CEO, it was usually because his performance was deficient in some way. As with a scolded child, the reprimanded worker would stand with his head bowed, looking down at the plush carpet beneath his feet (possibly for the last time), causing this action to be dubbed "called on the carpet" (Mordock & Korach, p. 109).

Ask any baby boomer what a "deadhead" is and he/she is not likely to come up with a term relating to railroading! One might wonder if the Grateful Dead rock group would have ended up with their groupies being called "deadheads" had not the term already been part of American vernacular (we shall never know that, of course). Truckers use the term to refer to running an empty rig. In the early days of the railroads, a dead head (two words) referred to a person who was riding for free (having gained that advantage by being issued a pass for any number of reasons) and, later, a deadhead (one word) referred to an empty car on the train. In either case, it meant that the train was traveling, but the profit was minimized by either the freeloaders or the lack of passengers (Garrison, pp. 327-328).

"Head" is a term often relating to railroading. A "doubleheader" is a train that is powered by two locomotives. Some believe that this is the origin of the baseball term "doubleheader," meaning "two games in a single day" (Hendrickson, p. 215).

When rails were laid in Britain (long before the train was exported to America), the passengers were hurried aboard with the call "Right away!" - board immediately. In America the term was changed to "All aboard!" but we kept "right away" in our phraseology (Holt, p. 211). Most of us are familiar with that term and the sense of urgency it implies. When we are searching in a computer database for our ancestor, we want the screen image to load right away; and when we are searching for that person in the image, we want to find his/her name right away; and when we order documents through the United States mail, we want to receive them right away.

Along the same vein (a phrase for another day) is the verb "to highball" (meaning to travel very fast or go "full speed ahead"). Once a train is in motion, it is not practical to stop it (at least, not until its destination has been reached), so a system was devised to give the engineer the signal that he could continue at full speed. A metal globe was affixed to a crossbar so that it could be raised or lowered, using a series of pulleys, and the engineer understood that, when in the low position, the train was to stop, but when the globe or ball was in the high position, it was safe to continue at full speed. Of course, the signal system of the early railroading days is no longer used, but the term "highball" (i.e., the ball in the high position) has continued to mean "to move at top speed" (Garrison, p. 332).

As just mentioned, stopping a speeding train is not recommended, hence the decision not to stop at every town a train passes through. The smaller towns are often called "whistle stops," so named because they are so small that the train merely whistles as it goes through. These towns still retain the term "stop" because the train will make a stop if it is signaled to do so; otherwise, it is full speed ahead (Barnhart, p. 1233). We hope that the whistle stop towns our ancestors came from had town clerks who kept good records and court houses that did not burn down.

So the next time you see a train, think of the many terms we have borrowed from the field of railroading. When it comes to doing our family history research, we will all highball to the microfilm readers when an awaited film arrives, hoping for success, or even a doubleheader! And when searching the computer, if we find our favorite search site is "down," we want to call the webmaster on the carpet. We love the chance to get together with our genealogist friends (not deadheads) to share ideas, letting off steam in our excitement (and, sometimes, frustrations) about our own experiences. And when it comes to the research successes, we feel as if we are on a gravy train!


Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.) Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row 1955.

Garrison, Webb B. Why You Say it: The Fascinating Stories Behind Over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Holt, Alfred. Phrases and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where They Came From. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Morris, William, & Morris, Mary. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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