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Today we move from our horticulture theme to a new theme of "railroad words". Fortuitously, we can begin with a word that has meanings that fit each theme.

deadhead (horticulture) – to remove the blooms after flowering, so that the plant will devote its energy to developing of new flowers, rather than to producing seeds

deadhead (railroads and other carriers) – to move a train not to paying business, but simply to get it to where it needs to be for later work. (Also applies to moving of crews; a related noun-meaning of deadhead is "a non-paying passenger". The term is also used in trucking.)

Consider, for example, a railroad bringing seasonal crops to marked. At peak season, it may need many boxcars to bring the crops from farm to city – and not have enough freight to fill those cars on the way back to the farm.
    A trucking company can collect a fuel charge only when hauling the customer's merchandise, Hyde said. But 12 to 15 percent of a truck's mileage is "deadhead," when it's empty traveling from the last unloading point to picking up another cargo.
    – Kevin Bouffard, The Lakland (FL) Ledger, Sep. 5, 2005

    If you're itching to recall the halcyon days of rail travel, there are private cars available for hire. But prices start at around $3,000 a day. You'll save a substantial amount if you fly to where the car is based rather than having it come to you. That cuts down on the owner's costs to position the car. If you're traveling one way, expect to pay for the empty car to deadhead home.
    – Larry Armstrong, Ride Like A Railroad Baron, Business Week, May 10, 2004
 
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Very nice, Wordcrafter. There's another deadhead: a term for itinerant fans of the band The Grateful Dead. Years ago I ran across a monograph at a university library from 1908 called The Grateful Dead by G H Gerould. It is a tale type in folklore where a stranger meets a corpse which for some reason cannot be buried and ends up paying so that it can.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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a term for itinerant fans of the band The Grateful Dead.

That is the first meaning that occurred to me, as well, zmj.


*******
"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
~Dalai Lama
 
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The word airhead also has a definition that predates the Summer of Love: it's the military paratrooper analog of a beachhead: a secured place to land planes.
 
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jerkwater(contemptuous) 1. (of a place) remote, small, and insignificant, esp. "jerkwater town 2. contemptibly trivial: jerkwater ideas
This is probably the source of the noun jerk, as in, "He's a stupid jerk."
    I could care less about some operation you guys ran in some jerkwater, third-world country ten years ago.
    – Vince Flynn, Term Limits

    "I never heard of him," said Captain Willie. "Well, you will," said the man called Doctor. "And so will everyone in this stinking jerkwater little town if I have to grub it out by the roots."
    – Ernest Hemingway, The Tradesman's Return
Etymology: From conditions where a train, to replenish water for its steam engine, would stop to 'jerk' buckets of water from a stream or creek. Sources seem to conflict as to whether the original concept was:
  • a dinky locomotive (needing frequent refilling),
  • a two-bit railroad company (unsupplied with water tanks),
  • a worthless town too tiny to have a water tank.
 
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I've always associated 'jerk' with motion, as in soda-jerk. By extension, one who was not the pharmacist, but only the counter help...

(I first encountered 'jerk' in a technical sense, in physics, as change in acceleration.)


RJA
 
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intermodal – involving the transfer of goods between two different modes of transport

When you're on the highway, notice that the large boxy container behind a semi-truck is not part of the truck. It's detachable, designed so that it can sit on a railroad flatcar for efficient long-haul transport to or near the destination city. There it is lifted off and hooked behind a truck cab, to be trucked to the exact destination.¹

To thus lift and transfer large quantities of large containers, heavy with goods, a railroad needs massive intermodal facilities. Similarly, a port city will have intermodal facilities to transload between rail and ship, or truck and ship.
    These various modes (rail, truck, ship, air) all grew up as independent and competitive businesses and with lots of mom-and-pop enterprises at various levels. Intermodal transportation can be confounding. Most of these modes were not invented or originally designed, to connect directly to one another.

    The combined company would have become a single transport network capable of shifting goods via intermodal modes between ship, rail, road and air. It would have placed the data flow under one roof. Why is this worth watching? Because, thanks to growing costs, increasing complexity and a glut of players, you'll soon be seeing more combinations like this throughout the world.
    – Robert Malone, Forbes, Aug. 23 and 30, 2005

¹ In these pictures the wheels needed for trucking are not part of the container; they are a separate unit to be attached after the rail portion of the shipment is complete. But alternatively, the item shipped by rail may include those wheels.
 
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The dictionaries are weak on the etymologies of several of our railroad words. Today's word is the most obvious case.

wyeU.S. Railways. An arrangement of three sections of track in the shape of a concave-sided triangle or ‘Y’, freq. used for turning locomotives. (OED definition)

[Schematic here. Imagine that a locomotive, facing east, enters from the west along the main line, then curves down the left branch of the wye to the base, then backs up the east branch. By this process it ends up back on the main line – but is now facing west.]

OED's first cite is dated 1950. But a simple search of U.S. Supreme Court cases reveals this 1927 cite:
    Drummond owned much land … on St. Andrews Bay. Steele desired to extend the railway from Panama City to the Bay. Drummond was willing to co-operate with him … to enhance the value of his lands. Drummond agreed to … pay the cost of clearing and grading the whole line, furnish and lay all ties, build necessary trestles and culverts, lay the rails, and put in a wye.
    Steele v. Drummond, 275 U.S. 199 (1927)
 
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The dictionaries are weak on the etymologies of several of our railroad words.

It's interesting that most UK and UK terms are different. We don't even have railroads; ours are railways.


Richard English
 
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brownie points – favor in another's eyes, esp. due to ones sycophantic behavior

    Dear Abby; What would your reaction be if a young woman who worked for your husband named her baby after him? Well, that's my problem, and I'm still upset about it. What do you think this foolish girl had in mind? Was she trying to make Brownie points with her boss?
    – "Dear Abby" syndicated column, Feb. 16, 1977
I believe brownie points is a railroad term, though other sources give non-railroad etymologies. Consider this problem that railroads, as the first large companies, would face: how can a railroad assure that its many supervisors will be consistent in how they handle disciplinary matters?

Around 1875 one George R. Brown, Superintendent of New York's Fall Brook Railway, devised a system. This is not merely local history, for many railroads adopted this "Brown System," thus spreading both the concept and the name. The system is still in use today. Under it each offense is worth a certain number of "demerit marks" to be noted in an employee's record, the employee to be fired if he accumulated certain number in within a period of time.

As you can imagine, rank and file railroad men were not fond of Brown-System demerit points. They derisively called them brownies. Thus we have a well-documented use of brownie as a pejorative (but not obscene) term for measuring merit by counting points.

I suggest this is source of the term "brownie points". In this I am a minority. OED has a different theory; AHD and Quinion have still another. At leisure I will separately discuss, compare, and evaluate them.
 
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featherbedding – the practice of forcing the employer (by union rule, etc.) to hire more workers than needed (or to limit his workers' production).
[From the term railroaders gave to the practice. More generally, featherbed – to have provide a cushy job or like economic advantages]
    So the prospect for Germany, as most voters clearly intended, is for a continuation of the status quo. They want their generous welfare state and feather-bedded employment arrangements. They have not yet experienced the kind of frightening economic crisis that persuaded the British in the 1970s to undergo the cold shower of Thatcherism.
    – John O'Sullivan, German vote throws U.S. for a loss, Chicago Sun Times, Sept. 20, 2005
 
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dead man's switch – a device that will take a specific action unless a human operator overrides it.
[For example, in your home, open both an ordinary door and a screen door. The ordinary door will stay open until you shut it. But a screen door is typically made so as to shut itself if you walk away. To keep it open, you must hold it open.]

A dead man's switch (or dead man's device, knob, pedal, treadle) is typically used as a safety device, to stop a machine if the operator becomes incapacitated. Most typically, to stop a train, as in the example from London five years ago.
    A Tube train with more than 100 terrified passengers on board rolled backwards in a tunnel for over half a mile after the driver apparently fell asleep at the controls. The "dead man's switch", a spring-loaded lever which is a safeguard if the driver is taken ill at the controls, would have stopped the train automatically if released, but the handle was kept in the "on" position. Scores of new Tube trains will have to be modified after the revelation that … if an unconscious driver slumps forward against the handle it could remain in such a position which prevents the brakes from being applied.
    – Dick Murray, London Evening Standard, July 10 and 13, 2000 (two reports, combined)

    "Then I think we'd better have better have a look at that lawn mower when they fish it up," the sheriff said. "Those things have a deadman switch on 'em. No way it could just keep going without his foot on the pedal ..." "Unless it was tampered with," Dad finished. They both looked grim and headed off in the direction of the bluff.
    – Donna Andrews, Murder With Peacocks
 
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The usual phrase over here is 'dead man's handle'. Interesting that the Standard used 'switch' in the report quoted.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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Yes, I wondered about that too. It is a handle, after all.


Richard English
 
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Originally posted by wordcrafter:
wyeU.S. Railways. An arrangement of three sections of track in the shape of a concave-sided triangle or ‘Y’, freq. used for turning locomotives. ... OED's first cite is dated 1950. But a simple search of U.S. Supreme Court cases reveals this 1927 cite.
From experience in my law practice, I can testify that the word "wye" is much older, and is broader in meaning.

A few years ago I was involved with a piece of land that had been in litigation in the 1880s, and I had occasion to have the court dig up its musty old case-file. The court complaint was dated about 1886, as I recall. It made specific reference to an agreement to build a wye (I remember this because I had to look up the word), and it used that term as if it were a familiar one that needed no explanation.

Also, the wye involved was not a 'turn-around track'. It was simply the curved track that connected two rail lines where they crossed each other. You even can see that fact on your computer, for the wye was built and it still exists today for your viewing.¹


¹To see it, go to Googlemaps and search for 15285 Commercial Avenue, Harvey, Illinois. (A quick click on the map will remove the extraneous "dialog box".)
. . .Notice that two railroad lines cross there. Zoom in one notch for a better view of the rail intersection (hit the plus sign, and then re-center); then switch to "hybrid" view to see a photograph of it.
. . .Zoom in one more notch on the photo and you'll notice that a curved connector track joins the northwest-bound track with the northeast-bound one. (The curved connector lies just east of the red icon; the northeast bound track lies parallel to and between Commercial and Park Avenues.)
. . .This curved connector track is the wye that was involved in that 1886 lawsuit. One more click will give you an even closer view.
 
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