Etymologyfilter: Can anyone help explicate the origins of 'railroad (v.)'?
January 23, 2010 3:45 PM   Subscribe

In search of historical incidental basis for the log-ism.

According to etymonline, 'The verb meaning "to convict quickly and perhaps unjustly" is from 1884.'

The same sense also carries the meaning of politically compelling via coercion, threats, etc.

I am curious to know if this log-ism is grounded in any US or Canadian historical incident in which a railroad company [read: large economic entity] exerted economic pressure on a politically elected or appointed official [think 'campaign finance'] for political favors.
posted by OntologicalPuppy to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Phrase Finder suggests it's just a natural extension of what people watched railroads do over the course of the 19th century:
Here's what one source says:

RAILROAD - ".The speed with which lines were bult and the railroad builders' disregard for anything that stood in the way of 'progress' inspired the term 'to railroad' by the 1870s." From "The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).
But some other sites I'm reading suggest that it had more to do with the way railroads were forced through communities or privately owned land over citizen opposition - and those sites suggest that "getting railroaded" is a shortened version of "getting railroaded through." Some refer to the ease with which paid-off court officials allowed railroad easements.

I did a search of Google Books from 1800 to 1900. Interesting results - it was certainly in wide use by the 1890s - but nothing specific yet, though you might want to read around in there too. An 1897 dictionary entry notes it as meaning "to push through at a rapid pace," which supports the Phrase Finder's reading.
posted by Miko at 4:05 PM on January 23, 2010

Interestingly, a lot of these sources indicate that the term "railroaded" was current in different senses, too. It also meant "Traveled (or shipped) by railroad" and "ran the business of a railroad."
posted by Miko at 4:07 PM on January 23, 2010

OK, it's older than 1884 in the sense of "carried off against one's will". Here's an anti-corporate screed by the reresentative from San Francisco, Clitus Barbour (Workingmen's Party), within the Debates and Proceedings of the Constitional Conventions of the State of California, delivered in 1878, that reads:
Not a right of way, from the obscurist deer trail up to the straight and narrow way has been left unincorporated, and the broad road that leads to death, where thousands walked, is now plastered with incorporations, and freights and fares have been reduced on that memorable highway so that States and nations are now being railroaded through to death on better terms than sinners got afoot before.
In an 1883 book, someone is "railroaded through the courts to conviction." There are a few other examples prior to 1884.

Every other mention I can find that uses railroading to mean coercing something in a particular direction, rapidly and with force, comes after 1878. I think a good working theory might be that the turn of phrase, used in that sense, may have originated in Barbour's very literary speech.
posted by Miko at 4:28 PM on January 23, 2010

I always thought it had to do with the way railroads work. The destination is predetermined for any train on a given track; similarly, someone who is railroaded is destined for a particular outcome by the powers that be, regardless of what they (try to) do about it.
posted by Simon Barclay at 5:20 PM on January 23, 2010

Best answer: Railroad land grants and related political chicanery undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the origin. It's felicitous because it doesn't just evoke the physicality of a massive machine barrelling through the landscape, and it doesn't even just evoke the sense many had that the railroads -- with federal imprimatur and, sometimes, eminent domain -- built their lines with little regard for local opinion (generally for, unless bypassed), but also evokes the powerful political relationships associated with the industry in the 19th century -- particularly (and notably six years prior to the Barbour speech) the Credit Mobilier scandal, which reached into the Grant administration (and tangentially, the prior Johnson and Lincoln administrations).

To quote Wikipedia:
If the Union Pacific’s corporate officers had openly undertaken the construction of the railroad themselves, this scheme (to make windfall profits immediately through the construction of the railroad), would have been exposed to public scrutiny, and it would have given proof to the opponents of the transcontinental railroad, who believed that the whole project was in fact an ambitious fraud to build a "railroad to nowhere" and make tremendous profits doing so, all the while getting the US Government to pay for it. And most importantly, to construct the railroad in such a way, and going to such locations, that the project had no regard for trying to create a worthwhile and profitable transportation enterprise, when it was completed.

As a political term, it's pretty loaded, even though much of that context is long forgotten.
posted by dhartung at 8:23 PM on January 24, 2010

« Older Help us make the most of an Islay trip this spring...   |   "Nothing good will come of this" ??? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.