The Words We Use: How Our Lives Create Our Language

It’s amazing how our brain can connect events separated by several years and spur us on to discover more about the world around us.

A few years ago I was consulting with a church in the Bronx, and fascinated by the subway there. Last year, I spent several days in a hotel in Nashville, TN that had its origins as the train station for the L&N railroad – which I traveled on as a boy to St. Louis, MO. Last fall, I flew into Baltimore and took the train from the airport to Union Station in DC, where I had a couple of days of meetings and sightseeing.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that this curiosity turned to recreational research in the world of books: histories of subways in general, the ones in New York City in particular, and histories of railroads, starting with the ones in and around New York City.

Reading the book Grand Central last night, two particular passages caught my eye:

Not long after the Harlem Railroad linked the teeming city of New York to country homes in Harlem, what would become the Bronx, and the Westchester and to small Hudson Valley villages, a perceptive railroad superintendent remembered only as M. Sloat noticed a new class of customer: the repeat passenger, whose to-and-fro trips to work and home represented a potential marketing bonanza. Seizing the opportunity, the railroad initiated an imaginative fare structure for tickets based on a onetime passage or even a round trip, but on unlimited rides for six months or a full year at a steep discount from the single-fare rate.

The full fare was commuted, and with one bold entrepreneurial stroke the commuter – in name, at the very least – was officially born.

GrandCentralTerminal

courtesy Paolo Villenaeua

 

Cornelius Vanderbilt (owner of the above mentioned Harlem line), the steamboat tycoon turned railroad magnate, had an on-again, off-again relationship with Daniel Drew, a devilishly clever Wall Street buccaneer.

Drew’s reputation for bloating his cattle by quenching their thirst before delivering them to market and for later outwitting Vanderbilt by diluting Erie Railroad shares would give rise to a double meaning of the term watered-down stock.

The origins of words are fascinating. Here are two terms commonly used in our vocabulary today that were taken from the 1870s. They exist because of the rapidly ascending influence of new technology and industry – the railroad.

I wonder – what words are we creating today from the digital world we live in?

Quotes from Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s