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Early American Railroads Shape Modern Language


In this May 10, 1869 file photo, railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first railroad transcontinental link in Prementory, Utah. (AP Photo/Union Pacific/Andrew Russell)

In this May 10, 1869 file photo, railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first railroad transcontinental link in Prementory, Utah. (AP Photo/Union Pacific/Andrew Russell)


Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

Each week, we tell about American expressions and where they come from.

Today we talk about railroads. Railroads were important to the development of the United States. The first U.S. railroads were built in eastern states. Trains later connected the East Coast with the West Coast.

Train and railway expressions worked their way into American English over a century ago. Many of those terms are still being used today.

Railroads changed the look of the United States. They cut through mountains, crossed through wide open prairies and joined together in cities. The railroads made transporting goods easier. They also gave many Americans the chance to move around the country.

Sometimes railroad tracks would not join up in a town but divide it in two. One side of the tracks might be good, while the other side was ‘not-so-good.’ If you say someone is from the wrong side of the tracks, it means they are from the bad side of town.

For the train running down the track there is no right or wrong side. The track is simply the metal structure on which the train runs.

You can call these train tracks, railroad tracks or railway tracks.

You can call these train tracks, railroad tracks or railway tracks.

To go off track means to move away from one’s intended purpose or goal.

For example, you could say your career went way off track if you wanted to be a lawyer but became an actor instead. But if you go to law school and complete your studies, your career is back on track. Let’s say you finished law school very quickly because you took double the course load. You then could say you fast-tracked your way to becoming a lawyer. In the world of business, it is common to say a project has been fast-tracked or is on a fast track.

To stay on track means to pay attention to your goal or purpose. But getting sidetracked is just the opposite. A train that is sidetracked gets sent to a different station or down a different line.

Talking about train tracks, a rail is a single piece of steel that is part of the larger railway. Some rails are dangerous to touch. In some cities, a third rail provides power to a subway train, usually operating underground; electricity passes through the rail.

The third rail also is an issue which can fuel a heated debate. At a party, religion or politics could be third rail topics. Talking about them could kill your social life!

Many Americans say things get derailed when they go off track or away from a goal – or when they simply go wrong. For example, they might say something like this, “My travel plans got derailed by the bad weather.”

It usually is bad news when something gets derailed. When something goes off the rails, it is always a bad thing. To go off the rails means a person’s project or life is a wreck, or -- pardon the expression -- a train wreck.

When a train reaches its final stop, we say it has reached the end of the line. If you reach the end of the line you have come to the end of something. Often in old films, this is what the bad guy says just before he kills someone.

“It’s the end of the line for your buddy boy.”

And we have reached the end of the line for this Words and Their Stories. In other words, the show is over.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this Words and Their Stories. George Grow was the editor. Stay tuned for part two of Train Expressions. There are so many more!

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