9 Common Words That Come From Railroad Lingo

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Since the introduction of the first working steam locomotive in Great Britain over 200 years ago, trains have been a great influence on Western culture, whether in the world of books, music, or the movies. The language of the railroad has also infused the way we speak, including words that we still use today.


Before we came to know double-header as two baseball games played in a row, it was first a firework (1869), then a railroad train with two engines (1877). While there is still debate about whether the baseball term came from fireworks or trains, the double-header trains were hugely controversial in their time. Being able to take twice as many cars on the same trip, they were used as a cost cutting measure because the railroad operators could have fewer conductors and brakemen on a train, but it resulted in much more work for the remaining crew and was far more dangerous. Their forced introduction (coupled with a wage cut) led to widespread rioting in 1877.


You might not be surprised that this term for getting distracted or off topic comes from an actual sidetrack—a secondary track or line for a train. That meaning is from about 1828; we get the figurative meaning about 30 years later.


This term that we use to describe flights or anything continuous was first used to describe trains. In the 1930s, non-stop also referred to a variety show with no intervals or intermissions.


The phrase make the grade, or succeed at something, might come from the idea of railroads going up a gradient or incline.


While most of us know a turntable as another word for a record player, it originated as a railroad term referring to a revolving platform that was used for turning trains.


Who hasn’t heard of bumper-to-bumper traffic? But without trains, this sense of bumper might not exist. Coming from the verb meaning of bump, bumper originated around 1839 to refer to the buffer of a train car. By the early 20th century, the term also meant a fender on a motor vehicle. Bumper-to-bumper also emerged as a train term before getting associated with cars; the earliest references describe ways to store train cars “bumper to bumper.”


Jerkwater meaning small or inferior comes from jerkwater train, a line not on a main railway. These trains would often have to stop in towns so small, they didn’t have a water tank, and so the crew would have to lug, or jerk, water from a creek or other natural resource. Hence also the phrase, jerkwater town.


It doesn’t take a genius to realize this term for an easy yet lucrative job or endeavor comes from railroads. But what does gravy have to do with it? According to the Word Detective, gravy the delicious dressing also meant an easy role or “easily-earned laughter or applause” in 19th century theater-speak. Starting in the early 20th century, gravy was slang for money or success, especially if easily obtained. As for gravy train, that was a 1909 term for “a short haul that paid well,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Next time you clear your schedule, appreciate that if it weren’t for trains, you’d be starting your taxes over again. Originally, schedule just meant a slip of paper, and quickly became associated with the pieces of paper that you attached to the end of a longer document (hence all the schedules on your tax filings). But starting in the mid-19th century, schedule began to be associated with train time tables, and from there expanded rapidly to any form of calendar or planning that you need to get done to make sure you catch your train on time.