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Train Lingo

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INTRO: The summer travel season in America is almost over, but there's still time for a quick train trip. Today our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble are "all aboard" with some of the language of railroading that has become part of everyday English.

MUSIC: "City of New Orleans"

AA: Trains have left their mark on the landscape of American language. When a bill is rushed into law, people will say it's been "railroaded." If that law hits a legal snag, reporters may say it's been "derailed."

RS: Continuing this "train of thought," if a speaker gets off the main subject, onto lesser issues, he or she may be accused of getting "sidetracked."

AA: And, of course, everyone knows that "all aboard" is what train conductors say - even if these days many Americans never hear it, opting instead for car or air travel.

RS: But, Doug Riddell hears that call every day. It's his signal to get ready for another trip "down the road," as he puts it.

AA: Doug Riddell is an engineer with America's national passenger train system, Amtrak. A former broadcaster, he's written a book about life driving a train, called "From the Cab."

RS: We asked Doug Riddel to tell us about more terms used by railroad workers.

DOUG RIDDEL: "For instance, the term highball. This is a very popular term, very much associated with railroading. When a conductor gives an engineer a highball, it's his signal to start the train, and this comes from a signaling system.

"One of the earliest signals involved a scaffolding with a rope to which a ball was attached. The ball was raised by pulling on the rope to the top of the mast to indicate that the track ahead was clear and the train could continue."

AA: Our next stop is the zoo.

RS: Doug Riddell told us that "monkeys" and "bulls" have important jobs on the railroad.

DOUG RIDDEL: "Trains have to have some method of being stopped. They use air brakes and in between each car they have an air pipe, a flexible rubber hose that connects to the flexible rubber hose on the car immediately preceding or following it that allows the passage of air. The car inspector who couples the hoses together is an air monkey, a car inspector. Now a bull, a bull is a common name for a railroad policeman. Traveling down the road one time we had a disorderly passenger, the conductor called me and said `contact the dispatcher and tell them have the bulls waiting at Florence, South Carolina.

"Another very popular animal name is a `hoghead.'"

AA: And what's a hoghead? Doug Riddell is a hoghead -- an engineer, the person who drives the locomotive.

RS: Finally, we asked Doug Riddell what his favorite railroad term was.

DOUG RIDDEL: "Payday."

AA: "(laughing) Payday - p-a-y-d-a-y, a traditional term that will never change."

DOUG RIDDEL: "That will never change. No, I guess [my favorite term] is `high iron.' High iron is the main line. When you get out on the high iron, that means you're going to be traveling the fastest."

RS: Doug Riddell travels the "high iron" between Richmond, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina. And, he's author of the book "From the Cab: Stories from a Locomotive Engineer."

MUSIC "Take the A Train"

AA: We leave the station now with Duke Ellington as our conductor. He took a humble New York subway line and turned it into America's jazziest train.

RS: And if you're ever in New York, you too can "Take the A Train"! With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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