Do people know the phrase "make the trains run on time"?
March 13, 2018 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I am a project manager and at work people often refer to me as the person who "makes the trains run on time". My point of reference for this phrase is Mussolini. When I say, "are you calling me a dictator/Mussolini?" they are bewildered. Has this phrase been repurposed and I missed it?

For reference, these people are generally 40 or younger, but it has happened with people older than that too. Not one person has expressed awareness of the phrase's relationship to fascism.

I am in my early 30s and I know this phrase from high school history class. Am I weird for thinking it's weird?
posted by Emmy Rae to Society & Culture (109 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's, like, a little weird? But I would totally believe that "the trains run on time" has been sufficiently divorced from its original connection to Italian fascism to just mean "person what gets shit done," especially if it were coming from a younger person.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 1:37 PM on March 13 [24 favorites]


I'd say its weird, and also almost every result on the first page of a search for "make the trains run on time" literally mentions Mussolini in the title. My guess is random clue deficiency in your workplace.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:39 PM on March 13 [20 favorites]


People like to parrot back phrases they've heard before.
People in general do not know things.
Source: I have met people.

No one thinks you're Mussolini. There are like 5, maybe 6 people alive today who have ever even heard of Mussolini. But lots of people have seen trains. Trains are cool. Choo! Choo!
posted by phunniemee at 1:40 PM on March 13 [165 favorites]


Honestly, I think they’re just denying it in an “ummm...no” kind of way when confronted. I assume they’re using it amongst themselves and not to you, right?
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:40 PM on March 13


I'm also a PM, also tie that phrase to fascism, but I also know that almost nobody else thinks of it as a fascist thing. I make the trains run on time. I don't think anybody thinks I'm an Italian dictator.

God I hope not.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:42 PM on March 13 [10 favorites]


I'm 35 years old pretty smart I think, run in smart circles and I don't think anyone I knows that this is related to Mussolini.
posted by sandmanwv at 1:42 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


Datapoint: I am younger than you, and while I have a decent amount of general knowledge, history has never been my forte. I did know that the phrase had some sort of questionable-government connotations but did not know that it was specifically Mussolini. If I used the phrase, it would be parroting, and in a complimentary they-run-the-essential-shit kind of way.
posted by mosst at 1:43 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I am in my early 30s and work in project management. I have never heard this phrase, and would not have known to credit it to Mussolini.

Just as the origin of the phrase "rule of thumb" has some folklore around it, I'm afraid most people don't pause to question the origin of things. It's a saying they hear in their workplace and they perpetuate it. That's it.

(They might not even know who Mussolini is...)
posted by nathaole at 1:46 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I think some people use it in a tongue-in-cheek way, e.g., slyly hinting at the fascist connotations of management wanting everything to be all nice and neat and buttoned up while simultaneously also being proud of doing a good job doing just that.
posted by limeonaire at 1:46 PM on March 13 [12 favorites]


I know the origin of the phrase and yet find it completely inoffensive because it's sufficiently divorced from the origin. I also call it a frisbee rather than a "Frisbee-brand flying disc."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:48 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


I have polled several people just now at work including a few who are actually bright people and none of them, not a single one, knew the origin of the phrase. One said, "why would I know that, it's just about trains?" and another one said, "I don't know pop culture," and I said well it's not really...it's...well it's referring to Benito Mussolini, and she said, "I told you I don't know pop culture."
posted by phunniemee at 1:48 PM on March 13 [76 favorites]


I took two types of AP history and not once did that come up in any of our textbooks or primary source materials when we were studying him. 30, California.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:51 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the reaction is to the fact that responding to what's intended as a compliment with questions about comparison to a fascist comes off as a bit churlish.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:51 PM on March 13 [22 favorites]


I am mid thirties and know the origin, but I also have a family who was really /into/ All Things Military. I don’t think they’re meaning it.
posted by corb at 1:52 PM on March 13


I'm 27yo, educated, and work in academia. I did not know until I read your post that this saying had anything to do with Mussolini. Even knowing its origin now, I would never dream that someone saying I make the trains run on time was subtly accusing me of being a dictator.

There's a lot of information out there, and it's impossible for everything to be common knowledge to everyone.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:54 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


It is fascinating that the phrase has lost its sting to such a degree so quickly.

To my gen-X ears, it's pretty directly calling someone a fascist. Which, prior the 2000s, was just about the worst right-wing insult possible. Again, plus ça change.
posted by bonehead at 1:54 PM on March 13 [66 favorites]


I completely associate it with Mussolini and am really surprised that people don't know this. I think of it as a negative phrase. But I'm almost 60.
posted by FencingGal at 1:55 PM on March 13 [17 favorites]


I’m 41 and I don’t think anyone I know would use this phrase in any other way than to refer to Mussolini. Usually in a half-joking way, like I might text a friend “Hey my train is running late so at least we know Trump hasn’t gone full fascist yet.” Though I could also see it in an office context as pointing out your boss or colleague is a bit of a dictator. I’m quite surprised anyone wouldn’t make the association immediately, but I guess I shouldn’t be.

Btw I don’t remember learning this in school, just one of those things you pick up from being alive in the world and reading stuff.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:55 PM on March 13 [20 favorites]


I'm 50 and this thread is enlightening. I assumed everyone would associate this phrase with Mussolini. It seemingly comes up on most discussions of Mussolini. And as pointed out above if you google the phrase, it is pages and pages of Mussolini.
posted by vacapinta at 1:55 PM on March 13 [33 favorites]


Counterpoint: as someone in his 20s, I know it’s a Mussolini reference, and I’ve used it as such among my friends who all got it. It’s well-known enough that an early XKCD used it as a punchline. There are a million other phrases I would use if I just wanted to describe someone as being on top of their shit, without the fascist connotations.

Without knowing anything about you, them, or your relationship with each other, I would guess that the people using it know exactly what it means and are saying you’re being a little too uptight, but are backpedaling when you call them on it because they don’t want to call you a fascist to your face.
posted by Itaxpica at 1:56 PM on March 13 [12 favorites]


For what it's worth, the phrase was used by contemporary American sympathizers to ascribe some degree of exculpatory virtue to the Italian regime which was known to otherwise be morally questionable. Depending on the context, "Make the trains run on time" might simply be an idiom meaning "Competent and effective."'

That said I'm almost 50 and would never in a million years use it except as a serious accusation.

I can't find a source right now but I remember reading somewhere authoritative that the train schedules in Fascist Italy were absolutely not reliable, and the idea of Italian fascists making anything go well, organizationally, was ridiculous propaganda.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 2:00 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


I think this is a natural consequence of a lot of people using language very casually/not really thinking about it. Its maybe not as egregious as the shift in perception of the "one bad apple" metaphor but its in the same bent.

I DO think that fewer people will understand the phrase in relation to Mussolini than will have just heard others use it, and for some of the folks in the latter category trains running on time seems like a good thing so voila.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:01 PM on March 13


I've heard this all my life, but never in the exact way it's being used. It's always been a fake-apologetic for Mussolini, as in "at least he made the trains run on time," -- like, haha technically there might be things about fascism that would be more convenient. I've never heard it used to compare a person to Mussolini, so much as compare a situation or political disaster to Fascist Italy.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:03 PM on March 13 [23 favorites]


Also in my 20s, also have known the origin of the phrase since high school. (but also wouldn't assume that everyone else does - maybe we all just have very low expectations of the people around us?)

I wouldn't read into anyone saying this about me, unless there was some other context clues (tone of voice, waggling eyebrows etc) that would suggest otherwise.
posted by btfreek at 2:03 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I'm in my early 30s, a tech professional, and to me the only meaning of that phrase is "X is dictatorial but they get shit done." Not necessarily that X is Mussolini, but they need to have their own way and have the power to do so.
posted by muddgirl at 2:04 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


If I were to use that phrase - knowing full well it originated w the description of Mussolini - I would not be calling you a dictator. I would be calling you an efficient manager.

I assure you NOBODY around you is calling you a fascist, whether they even know who Mussolini was (highly unlikely) or not. They just mean you cause shit to get done.

I also assure you that it isn't an insult, since causing shit to get done is your job, and that to treat it as one will make you look... not great.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:05 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


The connotation doesn't go both ways.

Mussolini made the trains run on time.

Someone who makes the trains run on time is not Mussolini.

No one who hears this phrase today is going to think it has any negative implications - in fact, almost everyone would see it as a tremendous compliment.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:07 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]


I always thought it was pretty well-known as a fascist thing. I've heard it used in similar situations as yours, but in general, the people saying it seemed like the kind of people who would be sympathetic to fascists. I suspect that most people actually have more fascist sympathies than they'd like to admit.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:08 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I am in my 30s, I describe project managers as "making the trains run on time" all the time. I'm aware of the origin of the phrase but it doesn't mean that I think they are Mussolini any more than I say that if someone is hoist by their own petard they are a demolitions engineer or that if they are a baller that they are actually a professional basketball player. It's just an expression.
posted by phoenixy at 2:08 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]


38 year old Australian here: to me the phrase clearly points to fascism, though I may not have been able to tell you it was about Mussolini. I'm also thinking of the song Blow Up The Pokies by Australian band The Whitlams, whose final verse contains these words:
And I wish, I wish I knew the right words
To blow up the Pokies and drag them away
'Cause they're taking the food off your table
So they can say that the trains run on time

(A reference to how gambling addiction ruins lives, but the government relies on the tax money from poker machines.)

I would probably be a bit affronted if someone used that phrase about me.
posted by Cheese Monster at 2:12 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I'm a stereotypical Xennial, turning 40 soon enough (sigh), in general like to think i know some things but not all, but this is the first time I'd ever realized the saying had anything to do with Mussolini. Maybe it's the Canadian education system failing me here? I do know of Mussolini at least...
posted by cgg at 2:13 PM on March 13


Late 20s American, not particularly a history buff, went to mediocre public schools, and the phrase is strongly associated with Mussolini for me. I had no idea this was obscure. To my ear, it's as jarring as saying you came up with a "final solution."
posted by zeptoweasel at 2:15 PM on March 13 [33 favorites]


In my 30's, and heartily echoing vacapinta -- in my lexicon this phrase is shorthand for referencing Fascism/Mussolini. Even if it's often done in a tongue-in-cheek or satirical manner, or is meant to be complimentary, the people using it are still aware of the background. I guess I shouldn't be surprised there's a nontrivial quantity of people out there throwing the phrase about without being aware of the origins, but I've also run across the occasional person who uses 'drank the Kool-Aid' without realising they're referencing mass murder.

(But then a casual caffeination-process read about the Internets these days is often an exercise in despondency, with the misuse of faze/phase, rein in/reign in, palate/palette, &c, and I recently saw a distressingly long string of comments that indicated a horrifying percentage of people who don't realise that 'ex machina' has a 'deus' in front of it and that it's a Latin phrase dating back a couple millennia and not just the title of an AI film ... and now I need to lie down with a moist towel on my forehead.)

In conclusion ... get off my lawn, there are clouds that need yellin' at.
posted by myotahapea at 2:16 PM on March 13 [11 favorites]


I completely associate it with Mussolini and am really surprised that people don't know this. I think of it as a negative phrase. But I'm almost 60.

This is me, except almost 50.
posted by jessamyn at 2:16 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Many adults cannot read fluently and/or don't read if they aren't compelled to in school, or they do read but it's not outside their genre or family circle.

So if something is not completely current, they won't know where it comes from. This is why people write things like "all-intensive purposes." They hear it, but they don't read and don't have any context for it.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:17 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Never heard the phrase before but I would definitely not use it, especially if it is in anyway ascribed to a fascsist.
Trains were the main means of transport of deportation and to concentration camps in Europe of WWII.
Best avoid if your business partner s are European.
posted by 15L06 at 2:20 PM on March 13


I've heard this all my life, but never in the exact way it's being used. It's always been a fake-apologetic for Mussolini, as in "at least he made the trains run on time," -- like, haha technically there might be things about fascism that would be more convenient.

Just want to say I don't hear it as a positive thing about Mussolini or something that a pro-fascist would say - I think of it as meaning there was a huge and terrible cost to this supposed convenience, so it's not worth it.
posted by FencingGal at 2:20 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


I work in an industry with lots project managers and buzzwords, and I've never heard this. Which is good, because I would certainly make the Mussolini connection. But there are a few other buzzword phrases that get bandied about my workplace that I hate because that word does not mean what you think it means, morons!, and I've learned to just roll with it. I figure it's more important to judge the intent of words than their etymology. If your co-workers just mean "gets shit done", I'd drop it. Life's too short.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:21 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I'm 34, and if someone said this about me, I would think that they were saying I got things done, but used heavy-handed or Machiavellian tactics to do so--strong fascist association.
posted by agentofselection at 2:21 PM on March 13 [12 favorites]


Will add that it is odd to hear it's used in an unambiguously complimentary manner. When I and my cohort apply it it usually has an element of backhandedness, e.g. referencing a negative or, well, overly authoritarian quality of some sort and finishing it off with ' ... but at least [person] makes the trains run on time', or something to that effect. So yea, negative or backhanded/sarcastic.
posted by myotahapea at 2:21 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


I'm 41 and read a lot of books about World War II and I didn't know about the connection until this post.
posted by something something at 2:23 PM on March 13


As an elder (60+), I am very surprised that the phrase and the source aren't universal knowledge and I'm adopting the time-honored tradition of being appalled at the gaps in the knowledge of young folks these days.

"I don't know pop culture"?? Christ almighty. The world is on a fast track to hell via handbasket.

I imagine that you of tender years are likely to feel same when at some future date some yet-to-be-born person says Kim Jong-who? in response to an off hand remark about crazy dictators with nuclear weapons.
posted by she's not there at 2:23 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


I know the origin of this phrase, but my mother was born in Italy under Mussolini's rule. Growing up, I think I only heard it as a joke about Mussolini being so terrible this was the only good thing you could say about him*, and mostly at home from older family members. (As people have pointed out above, it's propaganda anyway.)

I think there's a good chance your colleagues are not calling you a dictator, but that someone you work with heard/remembered the phrase without understanding what it meant, started using it, and it became an office idiom. It's exactly like people using "drink the kool-aid" or "going postal" or "off the reservation" without considering the original contexts.

(*The _real_ "one good thing you can say about Mussolini" according to my mother was the Legge Gentile, which reformed the Italian educational system including extending the age of compulsory education. This was especially beneficial to Southern Italians, who were often kept home to work on the farm in spite of previous laws about mandatory schooling and had a very high illiteracy rate at the time.)
posted by camyram at 2:24 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


I completely associate it with Mussolini and am really surprised that people don't know this. I think of it as a negative phrase. But I'm almost 60.

same, but in my 30s.
posted by lalex at 2:26 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


I'm 35 and am very familiar with this expression. I think most people who use this expression are familiar with its origin but do not use it to suggest that person is Mussolini or a fascist. It's definitely the kind of thing that has become pretty divorced from its original context. Maybe these people are bewildered when you say "are you calling me a dictator?" because they don't know the expression's origin, or maybe they are bewildered because they don't understand why you keep asking "are you calling me a dictator?" every time someone uses what is (in my experience) a very commonly used phrase to mean "this is the person who keeps everything on schedule."

Either way, if you don't like when people use that expression in reference to you, just email them and tell them you dislike its origin and connotations. If people are really using this expression in reference to you that much, maybe this would be the simplest thing.
posted by cakelite at 2:27 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I think it's pretty divorced from the original context, though my eyebrows were raised almost through the roof the first time I saw this advertisement.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:34 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


To my gen-X ears, it's pretty directly calling someone a fascist. Which, prior the 2000s, was just about the worst right-wing insult possible. Again, plus ça change.

Same here.
posted by Dashy at 2:40 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I'm a 39 year-old Canadian and have no particular interest in history, fascism, wars, or the military but I still know that Mussolini made the trains run on time. I would kind of expect everyone to know that to, or at least everyone who grew up here. I did tend to pay attention in school though.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:41 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


Closing in on 50, and not only do I associate it with Mussolini, I associate it with lies told by Mussolini apologists. It's not just a dictator reference, it's calling someone an ineffective dictator.
posted by straw at 2:41 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Here's an article from the Wall Street Journal which also seems to be clueless about the origins of the phrase:

Every office has at least one -- the person who always makes the trains run on time.

These zealously efficient, systematic people can lend stability to office life by keeping projects moving, staying well ahead of deadlines, sticking to the rules and warning of potential hazards. And yet, if they insist everything be done in proven, familiar ways, at the expense of creativity or common sense, their rigor can cross over into rigidity.


So that's what your colleagues are really saying about you: that you're inflexible, unimaginative, and a stickler for the rules. But it's okay: at least they don't think you're a fascist!
posted by verstegan at 2:42 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Unless you literally work as or manage an operations planner for a passenger, freight, or transit railroad, it seems very weird to me.
posted by voiceofreason at 2:42 PM on March 13


Well, actually, I associate the phrase with lots of debunkings to the effect of "Mussolini didn't really do anything to improve train travel". So I associate it with Mussolini but also think of it as a misunderstanding about Mussolini.

OTOH, Mussolini is as far away in time for the kids today as WWI was to me when I was a young person. And while I am a big WWI nerd, I never really expected my contemporaries to know what, like, Verdun was, or who wrote Goodbye To All That.
posted by Frowner at 2:44 PM on March 13


I hear the fascist connotations of this phrase when people use it, but I think it's often fine for people to just run with the most relevant meaning available for an idiom without worrying about it. Let a thousand flowers bloom, you know.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:47 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


No one who hears this phrase today is going to think it has any negative implications - in fact, almost everyone would see it as a tremendous compliment.

This may be true in 100 years, but it's not true now. There are many, many people who associate the phrase with the original meaning. We may be older, but we're not dead yet.
posted by FencingGal at 2:49 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]


I'm 43 and not especially familiar with WWII-era history. The phrase is inextricably bound to fascism and anti-Semitism to me, and hearing it used in casual conversation is just as jarring and deeply unpleasant as hearing people say things like "So-and-so is an [x] Nazi."
posted by jesourie at 2:50 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


Just to clarify, I'm not actually offended by people saying this. I was pretty taken aback the first few times but my response was in a joking manner as it was obvious that they weren't using it with any historical context or subtext (unless they are way too subtle for me). My question really was just "am I weird about this, or are they weird about this?"

Based on the responses here, I am guessing a few people said it without its context and then since others had heard it, it spread through the office as a normal workplace phrase.

I would still never say it to anyone else, though.
posted by Emmy Rae at 2:54 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


I think that the phrase has, in some uses, a very specific meaning. The point, for me, of it being about Mussolini is that he is not just perceived as a dictator, but as an incompetent narcissist who ended up hanging from a meathook outside a service station. It is, when I hear it, most often used as way of discounting something apparently good that an unbelievably terrible person has done. "Trump has made statements in favour of gun control", "Yeah well even Mussolini made the trains run on time". It's not dissimilar to saying that a stopped clock is right twice a day. A way of pointing out that apparently redeeming features don't actually tell us anything redeeming about terrible people, they're just a coincidence. It also, unfortunately, relies on a rather xenophobic stereotype of Italians as chronically chaotic and disorganised.

But, crucially, this usage relies upon specifically referring to Mussolini and having an idea of both what a monster he actually was and of how Allied propaganda portrayed him. When people drop the direct reference to Mussolini, it is easy to see how the original reference and meaning could be lost.
posted by howfar at 3:04 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]


I'd take the phrase as meaning "you're a terrible person to have around who has achieved one small thing". Which is not what they meant.

I have had someone use this phrase about me, and I deflected it by saying I'd rather be Garibaldi. I don't think they got the Reggie Perrin reference:
Joan brought in coffee and a selection of biscuits, including rich tea, rich osborne and garibaldi.

‘You can see how prosperous we are,’ said Reggie, ‘from our wide range of pumice stones.‘

‘Pumice stones?’ said CJ.

‘When I say pumice stones, I mean biscuits,’ said Reggie. ‘What does it matter what we call things?’

Elizabeth, C.J., David and Tony avoided each other’s eyes in embarrassment.

Reggie held a garibaldi aloft.

‘Garibaldi was a great man,’ he said. ‘He made the biscuits run on time.’
posted by scruss at 3:04 PM on March 13


The fact that it wasn't true made it all the more insulting. Mussolini used it as propoganda, but he was a right-wing blowhard who said far more than he ever accomplished.

In modern terms, sarcastic Trumpisms would be close in sentiment: "That's such a beautiful painting. A fantastic, terrific painting, the best ever. And so inexpensive!"
posted by bonehead at 3:11 PM on March 13


> Without knowing anything about you, them, or your relationship with each other, I would guess that the people using it know exactly what it means and are saying you’re being a little too uptight, but are backpedaling when you call them on it because they don’t want to call you a fascist to your face.

You realize you're calling half the people in this thread liars, right? Maybe you should take a moment to recalibrate your expectations rather than assuming everyone is like you.

I'm 66 and automatically associate the phrase with il Duce, but this thread has taught me that (like so many other things I grew up with) that is no longer common knowledge. Thanks for the question, and I think it's pretty clear by now that no harm is meant, so if I were you I'd drop the "are you calling me a dictator/Mussolini?" response.
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


I'm 39 and associate the phrase with fascism, and would never in a million years use it as a positive or even neutral descriptor of someone else. But I'm vaguely aware that the phrase has become divorced from those origins among younger people of my acquaintance. So I don't think anyone's really weird, I think you and I just happen to be standing on one side of a language drift while many people including your coworkers are on the other.
posted by Stacey at 3:15 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Just my two cents, but I feel pretty sure that when people utter this phrase in a friendly work context they've fully divorced it from Mussolini and repurposed it to mean someone who makes sure things run smoothly, someone who dots the i's and crosses the t's, or something along those lines. Because that's what it sounds like it's saying, without the sinister under-meaning. People's brains are crowded and their wires get crossed, like my friend who the other day said, Let the cookies fall where they may.
posted by swheatie at 3:25 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Haven't read the comments yet because I don't want to bias myself. But, to me, this expression is very much about Hitler/Mussolini (more the former than the latter). I associate it with an extremist ends-justify-the-means philosophy of "yeah, he killed all those people, but the trains always ran on time, so it sort of evens out."
posted by 256 at 3:27 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, call a coworker a "glitter Nazi" one time -- just one time -- and you'll get a talking to.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:27 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


I'm almost 30 and had no idea this phrase had anything to do with Mussolini or fascism. I think it can be used neutrally, but more often as a backhanded compliment.
posted by Aranquis at 3:29 PM on March 13


PLENTY of people don't associate it with Mussolini because they misremember it as being a Hitler line instead.

also plenty of people do know what they're saying and say it to be funny, as you might say Let them eat cake as you brought in a cake for the office, and are disconcerted/backpedaling when you react by clarifying, as they can tell that it did not go over as a funny thing. this, you can't tell by the manner in which they say it. and it is up to you whether you want to indulge them in it or make them uncomfortable.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:29 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I’m in my 50s, know it’s a Mussolini reference, but wouldn’t expect anyone to be offended by the usage you describe, because time has divorced the phrase from its original context. I’m also not surprised that no one knows the origin of the phrase. I used to be shocked at the cultural references people didn’t get, but now I’ve been worn down. I bet a lot of people don’t even know who Mussolini was.
posted by HotToddy at 3:38 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


42, QA engineer, i associate it with mussolini, but at the same time know it's divorced enough from that source to not be considered gauche anymore.
posted by koroshiya at 3:47 PM on March 13


Late 20s American, not particularly a history buff, went to mediocre public schools, and the phrase is strongly associated with Mussolini for me. I had no idea this was obscure. To my ear, it's as jarring as saying you came up with a "final solution."

Yeah, pretty much same. I wouldn't have been able to pull Mussolini specifically, but for me the phrase has always had a silent "he might have been a monster, but at least he..." in front of it. (30 years old, for reference.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:55 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of the time when I made some reference to the phrase "if you sow the wind, you'll reap the whirlwind" and discovered (after an extensive survey of my facebook friends) that practically nobody had ever heard of it. I had thought that it was one of those things that everybody just picked up through osmosis.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:01 PM on March 13


I'm early to mid 30s. I know the phrase's connection to Mussolini. But I've always heard it only in relation to someone who gets things done. The Mussolini connection is just etymology trivia.
posted by downtohisturtles at 4:05 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I visited my grandfather recently. He talked about how scary the world was, how Trump and North Korea and Syria made him think about the war so much. That people don't understand how terrifying the war really was, and that they're not afraid enough that something like that might happen here again. He talked about having to hide from the Nazi's in a grave.

That people are deliberately using Nazi references as cute sayings and say that this phrase is now divorced from its original meaning is disconcerting to me. The war is not that long ago. Even though people who lived through WWII likely don't work in your office, second generation survivors very well may.
posted by blub at 4:08 PM on March 13 [10 favorites]


Ugh. I'm 37 and strongly correlate the phrase with fascism and how evil acts can sometimes have benign side effects. While the phrase may be divorced from its original meaning by some younger people, I consider what is behind the original meaning absolutely abhorrent and would take offense at it being used in a neutral manner.
posted by zsazsa at 4:09 PM on March 13


Might be relevant to note that Soup Nazi was 23 years ago and until relatively recently, for a lot of people (And still, for others), Nazism/Fascism is a bad but time-abstracted phenomenon.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:21 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Late 20s American, not particularly a history buff, went to mediocre public schools, and the phrase is strongly associated with Mussolini for me. I had no idea this was obscure. To my ear, it's as jarring as saying you came up with a "final solution."

... for me the phrase has always had a silent "he might have been a monster, but at least he..." in front of it. (30 years old, for reference.)


27 and feel the same way.
posted by Seeking Direction at 5:00 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Try not to be offended. I'm old enough to know the reference, and I'd rather work for you than for someone who doesn't make the trains run on time.
posted by ovvl at 5:10 PM on March 13


Also, I don’t know that this divide between knowing the reference and not knowing it can be pinned purely on age and the amount of time that’s passed since the the event. People regularly use the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns,” and I would imagine (or I would have imagined before reading this thread) that most people have at least a vague idea what that refers to, and that it was originally said about Nero (or at least “some Roman emperor dude.”) And its been a very, very long time since the last person who remembered Nero was gone.

It might be due to some generational difference, but it can’t be purely age. Actually now I wonder what the responses would have been if the question had been about someone at work fiddling while Rome burns, or a similar phrase from long-distant history that has managed to stick around.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:11 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I'm 30 and I immediately associate the phrase with Mussolini. I wouldn't assume someone else using the phrase is meaning to make a Mussolini reference, but I'd give it a bit of side-eye.
posted by pemberkins at 5:11 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I only know that phrase in connection to Mussolini and how top-down decision-making has upsides but is generally still bad. It seems it is losing it's meaning, like the word 'literally'.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 5:11 PM on March 13


I'm 32 and I always think of Mussolini. In fact, I work with trains and I recently heard someone (much older than I am) describe themselves that way in a professional context and wondered if they knew they were calling themselves a fascist. I think the phrase has passed into general usage now, even though it weirds me out. I don't think anyone is calling you a dictator on purpose.
posted by ferret branca at 5:27 PM on March 13


I am 37, but a big WWII person, so I know of the phrase's connection to Mussolini. I would note though at the time, it was meant as a compliment since Italian trains were notoriously behind schedule.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:55 PM on March 13


The connotation doesn't go both ways.

Mussolini made the trains run on time.

Someone who makes the trains run on time is not Mussolini.

I agree with your general thrust, but:

Mussolini was said to make the trains run on time. [He didn't]

So someone who actually does make the trains run on time is not only not Mussolini, he is also unlike Mussolini.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:02 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I’m 42 and I’ve never heard this phrase before. And if I did, I would not associate it with Mussolini.

I’m feeling pretty ignorant right now.
posted by amro at 7:31 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I have definitely heard this phrase, and also in the variant "he even made the trains run on thyme". I am thoroughly aware of its connection with Mussolini, but if I were to use the phrase casually, I wouldn't use it to imply that someone was a dictator.
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:38 PM on March 13


I'm 36 and have heard the phrase and had no idea it was associated with Mussolini. I have a masters degree and read widely so I'm surprised that I've never seen the connection before. Prior to learning this, I would have taken it as a compliment, and probably still would since I'd assume the person saying it also doesn't know the origin. But I won't ever say it now.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:09 PM on March 13


I'm 42 and immediately think of the Mussolini connection when I hear this phrase.

But I also have a double major in History and English Literature, so I may not be a representative sample?
posted by Murderbot at 8:32 PM on March 13


Mid 40s here (and I have a history degree). Definitely associate this with Mussolini; my friend group does as well - we use this as a bit of a grim joke between friends on occasion but given the connotations I would not consider it a great thing to say at work.
posted by pointystick at 8:48 PM on March 13


36, North America, some executive function issues; professionally employed in an “anal retentive” type field, and hold a B.S. in an unrelated field:

I associate the phrase “trains on time” loosely with fascism...but more immediately with the canon of Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

FWIW, you have my permission to interpret it as a compliment, to the effect that you are known for (ahem) “taking care of business.” (Which admittedly can mean working productively and efficiently, or merely defecating.)
posted by armeowda at 9:30 PM on March 13


Lots of great perspectives in this thread; and obviously you're not weird for thinking it's weird, it's just that some people have more knowledge of specific areas of history.

Here's an idea: slowly work to change the phrase to "makes the planes run on time." Or, even better, "makes the drains run on time."
posted by at at 10:16 PM on March 13


I associate the phrase with descriptions of Mussolini, but I would not consider the phrase an allusion to Mussolini unless it were accompanied by some other cue or situational context. It means to me, well, that they make the trains run on time, make un-sexy but necessary things happen, make the day-to-day work get done. (Throw in an eyebrow and a little side-eye and you can imply the "is a monster but at least..." part, but that's optional.) Just because the description was famously applied to him does not mean the description refers only to him forever now.
posted by Lady Li at 12:10 AM on March 14


There are like 5, maybe 6 people alive today who have ever even heard of Mussolini.

And all of us are right here on the green.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 1:05 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


43, reasonably well-read and educated, reasonable grasp of history, and had no idea the phrase was related to Mussolini. I would have guessed that the phrase meant someone pedantic and a bit of a control freak, so not necessarily a full-blown compliment, but would not have thought it was fascist. On the other hand, I know about Hitler and Nazi involvement with funding paranormal research. My knowledge is kind of selective. That said, I do feel pretty ignorant now.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:17 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Late 30s American and I consider myself pretty well educated and I would not have made the association with Mussolini. How enlightening!

In fact, now that I live in south east England, the idea that you are a person that makes the trains run on time sounds like a mighty fine compliment if you ask me.
posted by like_neon at 2:35 AM on March 14


I know the origin of this phrase, but my mother was born in Italy under Mussolini's rule. Growing up, I think I only heard it as a joke about Mussolini being so terrible this was the only good thing you could say about him

Camyram's take is my take. To me, it's saying that someone was otherwise useless, incompetent, even corrupt, misguided, follows the wrong moral compass, etc., but hey- at least this one good thing came out of it. Not really bringing Fascism into it, per se, but alluding to an overall state of negativity. Definitely NOT a compliment or something to feel appreciative about.

There is always a preface of "At least.." to the remainder of the statement. "At least he made the trains run on time..." (negative, pejorative, indicates that despite one singular element which can be called out as beneficial, this person was otherwise a very bad thing indeed); this is very different than, "He's the one that makes the trains run on time!" which is positive, indicates competence, skill, etc.

To use the phrase in the latter method indicates lack of awareness of its origin and (to me) would brand the speaker as poorly-read, historically ignorant, etc.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:40 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


Mussolini never made the Italian trains run on time (source Snopes). What he did do was to make people believe that he had by taking credit for the improvements to the system which were completed by his predecessor government and by propagating the myth that the timetable was being widely adhered to. Both time -honoured tricks in the fascist playbook, then and now.

So there are some broad lessons for project management -but not necessarily the expected ones of improving the KPIs by being intimidating or of good results in some areas being a result of repression in others - people aren't all that easy to intimidate en-mass and it is far less effort to use the magic of PR and bought media to get people to believe a myth.
posted by rongorongo at 6:51 AM on March 14


My Mussolini data point: when I was in high school ten years ago, I drew a moose, and someone gave the moose angry eyes and labelled it Mooseolini, so I added a speech bubble allowing Mooseolini to say he would make the trains run on time and maple syrup.

I am by no means a history buff. This dumb train meme is the only thing I know about Mussolini. I wouldn't be surprised by people not knowing it, but it's kind of wild to see it getting used divorced from all context.
posted by Thermopsis sp. at 7:21 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


I was teaching at a small college a few years back where the newly hired president tried to ingratiate himself to the faculty in his welcome address by saying that "One of the nice things everyone seems to say about X College is that the trains always run on time here, and I intend to keep it that way!"

This gambit....did not go well, to put it mildly. A room full of educated people ages 30-something to retirement age absolutely heard it as a smiling invocation of fascism, even though it was clearly not intended that way. It provided fodder for a whole lot of faculty lounge* gallows humor.

On the other hand, that guy was in his 70s, had a Ph.D. in the humanities, and apparently it didn't dawn on him that the phrase might bring up some uncomfortable associations, so there's that.

*there is no actual faculty lounge. If only.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:36 AM on March 14


Datapoint from a 26yo who attended public school in the midwest...

Lol I would absolutely take someone to mean that I was a dictator if someone said I made the trains run on time! As others have said, this is the only thing I know about Mussolini. But I've heard it used in conversation plenty of times.
posted by switcheroo at 10:54 AM on March 14


Since everyone's chiming in, I'm 36, Scottish and would look at someone weird if they said this about me, specifically because it is, in my ears, a mock-apology for fascism.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:32 AM on March 14


Maybe they think it's a Simpson's reference (all the more sad today, because it was the episode with Stephen Hawking):
“Principal Skinner, how’s your transportation project coming?” – Lisa Simpson
“Oh, excellent. Not only are the trains now running on time, they’re running on metric time. Remember this moment, people, eighty past two on April 47th, it’s the dawn of an enlightened Springfield.” – Principal Skinner
posted by 445supermag at 12:23 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Asked various peers the question, "If I said 'makes the trains run on time', what would it mean to you," and one of my 20-something colleagues had not heard that phrase.
posted by wnissen at 12:27 PM on March 14


At my workplace, it is very common to talk about "keeping the trains running" to describe the necessary but unglamorous operations work that results in travel reimbursements getting paid, supplies being ordered, paychecks being processed, and the bathrooms being cleaned. It is used with the connotation of "the people who do this work are very important and often sadly underappreciated" and without connotation to any dictators.

I think this phrase is likely in the same sort of linguistic drift middle-ground as "drink the Kool-Aid" and people's responses will likely vary pretty widely based on their context.
posted by oblique red at 1:33 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Mid 40s, know the reference, would be skeptical that it wasn't some sort of back handed compliment at best. Especially with the current rise of Fascist like governments.
posted by Mitheral at 2:05 PM on March 14


Off topic, but I'm wondering about this from above:

I think this phrase is likely in the same sort of linguistic drift middle-ground as "drink the Kool-Aid" and people's responses will likely vary pretty widely based on their context.

Is "drink the Kool-aid" not universally assumed to be a bad thing, even if those who say it don't immediately associate it with Jonestown?
posted by she's not there at 5:35 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Ha! Several years ago, a prospective boss asked me to describe myself, and that's exactly the phrase I used. I'm your age. I had no idea of the origin and I'm pretty overeducated, though not with respect to Mussolini, apparently!
posted by karbonokapi at 7:24 PM on March 14


twenties, U.S., knew it was said of Mussolini, but wouldn't assume that everyone who makes trains run on time is Mussolini reborn. (Also, in NYC, where we're all really hoping people other than Mussolini reborn can make trains run on time.)
posted by d. z. wang at 7:48 PM on March 14


Duh! If you've watched much Hitler - umm - I mean History Channel you would know this.
posted by Justin Case at 12:21 PM on March 15


Is "drink the Kool-aid" not universally assumed to be a bad thing, even if those who say it don't immediately associate it with Jonestown?

I think it is still assumed to be used negatively, but the seriousness of the reference is almost entirely lost when it is used in casual conversation.
posted by Emmy Rae at 12:35 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


I would not be calling you a dictator. I would be calling you an efficient manager.

At my workplace, it is very common to talk about "keeping the trains running" to describe the necessary but unglamorous operations work that results in ...

These two answers quoted as they most agree with my experience with this phrase. I'm over 40, college-educated. I've always sort of been vaguely aware of this phrase, although I don't think I've ever used it myself. I literally had no idea it was associated with Mussolini, and until now I didn't realize it had connotations beyond "this person gets things done".

I'm off to do some reading now.
posted by vignettist at 8:29 AM on March 16


« Older Islamic wall decal: translation?   |   West Coast to Chicago Amtrak choices Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments