Timely Terms – Avoiding Language From Tech That’s Not In Your Story

bed-readingIn the intro cinematic for the popular Medieval fantasy video game, Skyrim, the player finds herself in a wagon full of prisoners being hauled to a fort for punishment. When the wagon arrives, one of the prisoners mutters that it’s “the end of the line.”

Did a nasty squealing-to-a-halt sound just rip through your mind?  Then you must know that “end of the line” is railroad terminology. The phrase has no place in a pre-industrial setting like Skyrim.

Historical fiction and fantasy  occasionally stumble over technologically misplaced language that can knock informed readers out of the story.  (Or informed viewers … check out this piece on the timeliness of fonts in the TV series “Mad Men.”) If you want to avoid jarring and alienating your smartest fans, it can help to know the technological origins of some of English’s common words and phrases.

In this new series, I’ll introduce you to some terms you might not know originated in a specific technology. If the tech’s not part of your setting, you can detour around the terminology.  On the other hand, if it is part of your setting, you can find interesting ways to use the jargon!

And, although the series is called “Timely Terms,” it’s not merely about anachronism; if your setting is a desert world with no oceans (and therefore no sailing) you might want to avoid language derived from the Age of Sail.  But, let’s get started with the first topic, suggested by Skyrim: the railroad.

Off The Rails

Right off the bat, it’s important to remember that the word “train” was imported to the railroad from an older sense of a series of things being drawn—from Latin trahere, “to drag”—so that while “end of the line” might be out of place in a world that’s never known steam power, referring to a “train of wagons” would be perfectly fine. (Intriguingly, there is an obsolete use of “train” with a different origin, meaning treachery, a trick, a snare, or a decoy used to lure animals.)

Also, certain types of “tracks” and “rails” are fine.  It’s simply a matter of usage.  “Rail” existed in the sense of a horizontal bar long before the locomotive, so “railing against” and “run out of town on a rail” predate the railroad.  And, don’t worry about having your woodsman character hunting a fugitive by following his footprints; “tracks” and “tracking” work just fine.

But, there are some uses of those terms that may or may not be off-limits to a writer whose setting predates or simply never had steam-driven rail travel:

all the bells and whistles – Attested since 1869 as a way of celebrating the completion of a rail line.

derail, going off the rails – This might be obvious, but sometimes phrases like “derailed the plan” slip out so easily that we fail to consider their origins.

letting off (or blowing off) steam, popping off, blowing smoke, blowing your stack, chugging along – All derived from steam power; “full steam ahead” is a nautical concept, but similarly problematic for settings without steam power.

make the grade – Could refer to the struggle to climb a steep hill, made famous by The Little Engine That Could. Then again, the idea of achieving some stage in a graduated process certainly isn’t confined to the railroad.  Origin unclear.


just the ticket, that’s the ticket! – Oh, yeah: railroad-related for certain.

meal ticket – Some sources link this to railroad worker compensation, but it has questionable provenance and might be a term imported into the railroad industry. Even so, if your setting predates a 19th century setting, or never had an economy sophisticated enough to employ the use of vouchers for food, it might be best to avoid this term.


backtrack – While this doubtless has railroad uses, some sources trace its origins to early 18th century America, so it more likely derives from subterfuge related to wilderness warfare in the eastern woodlands.  Not railroad-related, but still cool!

sidetrack – Definitely railroad related, as anyone knows who has waited in an idle Amtrak car while a freight train buzzed by on the main track.

off track, back on track – Most likely railroad-related.

the fast track, one-track mind, wrong side of the tracks – Totally railroad-related.


train of thought – Seems railroad-related, but dates back to Hobbes’s Leviathan, so it must be derived from the generic meaning of “train.”

the gravy train – If you know the term “gravy boat” you might suspect that “gravy train” is a modernization of pre-industrial slang, but it’s not.  “Gravy boat” seems to be a joke at the expense of “gravy train,” which appeared in the early 20th century.

tunnel vision, light at the end of the tunnel – Both owe their existence to the fact that rail travel put human beings through tunnels at a historically unprecedented rate.


And, this last one might surprise you:

sabotage – French railway workers on strike at the turn of the 20th century would of destroy the metal shoes holding railroad tracks in place. The word for this shoe is “sabot” and thus the practice became known as “sabotage.”

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