Railroad terminology

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a free online course offered by the Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) called Rail Nomenclature. As a big train fan, it was a delightful opportunity to learn about terminology related to trains and rail systems and to get more insight into how they work.

The introduction to the course quoted George Bernard Shaw as motivation:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has take place.”

… which has so many implications beyond just terminology for railroads! I agree!

I learned a lot from this course. For example, did you know that we have both the Federal Railroad Administration (in charge of transport of people (Amtrak) and freight via railroad) and the Federal Transit Administration (in charge of public transit, which includes buses, subways, commuter rail, etc.)? I was intrigued to learn that the U.S. has 47 rail transit systems, 4000 miles of track, and 4.2B trips per year – more than airlines, but fewer than buses. (This is just for systems controlled by the FTA, so the numbers exclude Amtrak numbers.)

The course covered terminology used to describe train cars themselves, parts of the track, signal systems, power systems, and more. There was quite a bit of detail about braking systems in particular – important if you’ve got several tons generating momentum to dissipate when you want to stop. When the train is going more than 3 mph, it uses “dynamic” brakes in which the motors driving the wheels stop and become generators instead. If electrical storage is available, they can serve as regenerative brakes. When the train is going more slowly, it employs friction brakes (e.g., calipers squeeze pads against the wheels to slow their rotation). Both of these brake types are familiar to car owners. However, the train has a third option for emergencies: track brakes, in which the train uses strong magnets to press metal shoes directly onto the rail for additional drag (I guess this would be like toe stops on roller skates :) ).

Another cool fact is that the rails do double duty: not only do they provide a surface for the train to roll on, but they also provide a medium for signaling. This can be as simple as a track circuit: if you run power through a segment of metal track with no train on it, the circuit is closed and the corresponding signal can show a green light indicating the track is unoccupied. When a train enters that segment, its axles short the rails together and current drops, triggering the signal light to change to red. Thus, any train approaching that segment gets an automatic warning of whether the track ahead is occupied, even if the approaching train cannot be seen. No person or computer is needed to actively monitor it. (If power to the track fails, the signal defaults to red.)

More courses are available through the TSI course catalog. This particular class required Flash and was a little difficult at first to get working due to popups etc. However, the course instruction was very visual and fun to follow along – it used Flash to animate drawings of the concepts as they were discussed. I don’t know if they plan to revamp the course, since Flash support ends on December 31, 2020. You might want to check it out now before it’s gone! You get a certificate at the end, of course. :)

I won the National Adult Spelling Bee!

In 2009, I signed up for the National Adult Spelling Bee (in Long Beach), and I managed to come in second place. It was great fun! I went back in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Each time I did reasonably well, but I never quite managed to vault into the #1 position.

Until this year.

This year I didn’t plan to go to the spelling bee at all. I had plans to take some friends flying. But the weather turned bad for flying, so our sightseeing trip was deferred, and I found myself with just enough free time to head down to Long Beach for the Bee. I hadn’t prepared! I hadn’t studied! But I went anyway!

I then spelled many words, in round after round:

  1. budget
  2. waiver
  3. genealogy
  4. xenophobia
  5. centime
  6. didactic
  7. reconnaissance
  8. glucosamine
  9. foppery
  10. funambulist – a wire-walker (tightrope-walker)
  11. specious
  12. chilblains
  13. dermatophyte
  14. glissade
  15. cathect – to invest energy in
  16. accrete

and at the end, it was down to two of us, and then Anne misspelled “splith”, and my next word was “accrete”, and it was a home run! What a thrill!

And the best part? The Bee gives you $500 for yourself plus $500 for the charity of your choice. So the very next day, I walked into the Monrovia Public Library and presented them with the check – and oh, the look on the librarian’s face! It was like winning a second time all over again.

That’s not what I meant. Or is it?

You may have encountered this great example of acyrologia:

(I could not find an original source for the image, unfortunately!)

“Acyrologia” is kind of hard to pronounce. It is also rather obscure. A search in the online Webster’s dictionary does not find it! The link above to a definition takes you to a dictionary of rhetoric (Silva Rhetoricae, the Forest of Rhetoric). It defines acyrologia as “An incorrect use of words, especially the use of words that sound alike but are far in meaning from the speaker’s intentions.” Sometimes these things slip out (malapropism) and sometimes they are done on purpose (puns, the practice of which is known as paranomasia). I’d guess that Spoonerisms are another kind of acryologia.

I was amused to find that the Silva Rhetoricae characterizes some of its terms by their *ethos* (“persuasive appeal of one’s character”). For example, “Acyrologia erodes the ethos of the speaker, for it portrays his/her ignorance.” It also rates them by style: “Using acyrologia reflects poor diction (word choice), thus demonstrating a low level of style.”

There is also cacozelia, in which you use improper or overly erudite words to impress your audience or to make things sound worse than they are. The Silva Rhetoricae cites an example from Seneca: “This is an adultery against the state, to have sex under the trophies of Miltiades.” Adultery. Really?

Do you have any favorite examples of acyrologisms?

Back to the bee

Today I made my annual pilgrimage to the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach. I saw several familiar faces amongst the other competitors as I climbed onto the hot, stuffy stage and prepared to do battle with the dictionary.

The first four rounds were pretty approachable:

  1. fusty
  2. nimrod
  3. solstice
  4. homily

On the 5th round, I was given “hawkshaw,” a word I’d never heard before. I asked for a definition and was told, “a detective.” Hmm. Was it “hockshaw” or “hawkshaw”? I asked for the language of origin and got “U.S. slang.” That clinched it. I figured “hawk” (hunt) was a more likely metaphor for a detective than “hock” (sell) and went with “hawkshaw.” And it was right!

(It turns out that hawkshaw is a reference to a comic strip character named Hawkshaw the Detective.)

On the 6th round, I got “paludal.” Yeah, if you’ve heard of this word before, kudos to you! The definition is “of or relating to a swamp; marshy.” I hesitated. Was it “pa-” or “pe-“? “Pelagic” is a word that refers to the ocean, which is watery. Was that close enough to marshy? What would a “pal-” prefix mean?

I ended up going for “palludal,” which was close, but no cigar. Later I learned that “palus” is Latin for “marsh.” Well, now I know!

That round was quite brutal, and by going out at that point I tied for 6th place with many other spellers (the same place as last year!). Some interesting and challenging words from the remaining rounds (an asterisk means I would have misspelled it) were:

  • antimacassar
  • primeval
  • tetchy
  • sanguine
  • prurient
  • *maquillage
  • costive
  • reify
  • turpitude
  • basenji
  • degust
  • phalanx
  • *divagate
  • prevenient
  • contumacious — the winning word!

I’m already looking forward to next year. :)

Once more unto the b-r-e-a-c-h

Today I got to once again match my orthographic wits against 30 other people in the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach, CA. Here are the first seven words I was given to spell:

  1. extradite
  2. notch
  3. rescind
  4. meticulous
  5. gossamer
  6. tranquil
  7. succinct

At this point, we were almost 1.5 hours in. The organizers did a headcount, found that we had 16 people left, and decided that they needed to take it up a notch to whittle more down. So we jumped into a much harder word list, and people started dropping like flies.

The spellers before me were given “quiescence,” “absinthe,” “chicanery,” “babushka,” and “colcannon.” I would have been okay with any of those (I think).

I was given “locofoco.” My reaction: ?!?!?!! The audience: ?!?!?!

I asked for a definition and got: “a member of a radical group of New York Democrats organized in 1835 in opposition to the regular party organization.” You recognized that, right?

I asked for the language of origin and got “probably Latin.”

So I went ahead and guessed. And got it right (!).

The next round, I was giving “atrabilious.” The definition was something about being inclined to anger (as I recall), although now when I look it up, I get “given to or marked by melancholy.” At any rate, I spelled it as “atribilious” and with that, my 2013 bee ended. Done in by a schwa!

In the end, I tied for 6th place. My track record at this bee has been: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place, so linear regression predicted 5th. I guess I slightly underperformed. :)

I enjoyed sitting through the rest of the competition, which got very fierce and crazy indeed near the end. Final words included (starred words are ones I would have missed):

  • *chiropteran
  • flivver
  • empyrean
  • *misoneism
  • *callipygian
  • nescience
  • pinyin
  • pyrrhic
  • nonpareil
  • cyrillic
  • hafnium
  • *auscultation
  • lamia
  • demarche
  • *weisenheimer
  • legerdemain
  • *videlicet
  • seriatim
  • *imprimis
  • etesian
  • pneuma
  • flocculate
  • syncretic
  • interrobang
  • primogeniture
  • espiegle
  • mimesis
  • interdict
  • *crwth ?!?!
  • *gregarine
  • gnomic
  • obloquy
  • *argillaceous
  • farrago
  • *dengue
  • *moitie
  • *polysyndeton
  • *kluge
  • denouement
  • maquette
  • panegyric
  • festinate
  • tourbillion

And finally, Jim Sherry from Alabama spelled the winning word, “quincunx.” It was a great victory! And especially since he’d come from so far away, and had been saying before the Bee that Delta lost his luggage, so it had been a rough trip so far. Now he’s the champ! :)

Older entries »