Language of the Rails

The Jupiter and 119 steam at the last spike site.
The railroad was a cornerstone in shaping our nation. Its ripple affect can be seen everywhere you look. For example, phrases from the railroad spilled into everyday usage and continue to be used today. (The modern term is given first followed by its railroad origin.)

BAND WAGON—on the popular or apparently winning circle, as in an election. – A band wagon was the pay car or pay train from which wages were handed out to railroad employees.

BELLS AND WHISTLES—doing something in a big way. – Whistle signals were used to let people know what the trains were going to do and the bells served as a warning and a greeting.

BLOW SMOKE – to brag. – A steam engine blowing smoke is a beautiful sight.

BLOW UP—an explosion, to loose one’s temper, to display one’s fury as by shouting. -To clear the smokestack by blowing air up through it.

DEADBEAT—one who persistently fails to pay his debts or way. -The word was coined in the late 1800's when railroad workers noticed that loaded freight cars made a different beat over the track-joints than cars that weren't carrying a load. The empty cars made a "dead beat" indicating they weren't paying their way. By the beginning of the 20th century "deadbeat" came to encompass people who failed to carry their share of the load.

DEADHEAD— a slow witted person, a dullard. An employee riding on a pass; any nonpaying passenger. Also a fireman's derisive term for head brakeman who rides engine cab or a locomotive being hauled "dead" on a train (without passengers or cargo).

DERAILEDto get off-track. – To get off-track!

DOUBLE-HEADER—a pair of games played in succession on the same day, usually by the same two teams. -Train hauled by two engines.

HIGHBALL— (noun), mixed drink usually containing whiskey or brandy. - A signal to operate a train at full speed. The signal was made by waving hand or lamp in a high, wide semicircle, meaning "Come ahead" or "Pick up full speed."
(verb) highball or phrase 'ball the jack means to make a fast run. The word highball originated from an old-time ball signal on a post, raised aloft by pulley when the track was clear.

HOTSHOT—aggressive, or skillful; -A fast train; frequently a freight train made up of merchandise and perishables. Often called a manifest or redball run.

JERKWATER TOWN—small unimportant, insignificant. - In the days of steam powered locomotives, trains needed to maintain their tenders with water. Most large towns had on the track water towers for this purpose, making topping off easy. Where there were no water towers, usually in smaller towns, water was procured from a nearby stream using ropes and buckets or leather bags. This process was called “jerking water” and these smaller towns were referred to as “jerkwater” towns. These localities often existed only to supply water to the engines of passing trains; and were places other than a regular stops, hence of minor importance.

LETTING OFF STEAM—To give or vent one’s repressed emotions, usually in a noisy way. - A technique periodically used with a steam boiler to release pressure by blowing off some steam when the pressure got too high.

MAKE THE GRADE—To attain a specific goal; succeed. -The grade is the track bed; to make the grade of 2% slope or lower was required by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.

POP OFFTo speak thoughtlessly in a burst of released anger. – This happens when the safety valve on the boiler releases steam, making a loud noise, and displaying a vertical wave of water.

RAILROADED has several common meanings usually referring to a person being forced into an action with haste or by unfair means. The railroad was built on a very fast schedule.

SIDETRACKED—to move or distract from the main subject or course. -When trains approached each other on a single track where there was no interchange (a rail junction where cars were switched) one train had to move over to a siding and was sidetracked while the other passed.

WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKSa place where people are “less desirable”. – Those who lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” were those who lived where the wind generally blew the smoke from the locomotives, usually this was less expensive property and was inhabited by folks who were less financially fortunate.

Last updated: June 26, 2018

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