Why people who say “train station” sound stupid

Google Ngram "railway station" all English: click to embiggenI cringe when people talk about the “train station”. “It’s ‘railway station’, you morons,” screams my brain. Well as it turns out, they’re actually not stupid — at least not for that reason. It’s just another relatively modern shift in language.

The chart at the top of the post is a Google Ngram search of their entire English corpus since 1820 — the first public steam railway in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 — comparing the usage of “railway station” (blue) versus “railroad station” (red) and “train station” (orange).

You can click through to the full-size chart, or run the search yourself.

As you can see, the most common usage has almost always been “railway station”, with “railroad station” distinctly second-place. A “train station” wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s, but it rose in popularity quite quickly. “Train station” has been the most common usage since the mid-1990s, although it has been declining again since around 2000. I wonder why.

My understanding is that many railway terms derived from the military, because until the railways came along nothing else had been organised on that sort of trans-national and even trans-continental scale except armies. Hence trains have “guards” for their safe operation, and “stations” along the line where staff are stationed to maintain the entire railway system — including fuel, water, trackwork and signalling.

Railway stations are therefore part of a railway’s entire operation, not merely “train stations” for trains to stop at. For me, someone talking about “train stations” is showing their ignorance of how railways work: it’s more than just the trains.

Since I had the Google open in front of me, I thought I’d look at the variations in US versus UK English. It seems that “railroad station” isn’t the dominant American usage that I’d imagined.

Continue reading “Why people who say “train station” sound stupid”

Prescriptivist fools should go to jail, sorry, gaol

If there’s one thing funnier than a prescriptivist, it’s a prescriptivist who’s clearly wrong yet doesn’t know it. I was therefore giggling as soon as I saw Neil tweet about my spelling of “jail”.

Either @stilgherrian has been transported to America, or I really am the only person who spells gaol correctly here (along with @jbugs14)

“Correctly”, eh? Hilarious, Neil.

Dictionaries record language as it is actually used, not as those with a dangerous little knowledge imagine it is used. Both the Macquarie Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary list “jail” as the primary spelling. And as Google’s Ngram shows, “jail” started to be used more often than “gaol” some time in the 1830s, at least in the totality of English.

The OED does record “gaol” as a second spelling in the entry’s head, but the Macquarie does not. Instead, it adds this note:

Usage: In general the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail. However, gaol remains fossilised in the names of jails, as Parramatta Gaol, and in some government usage.

Fossilised. See that?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, consulted online just now:

In British official use the forms with G are still current; in literary and journalistic use both the G and the J forms are now admitted as correct; in the U.S. the J forms are standard.

Looking through the OED’s citations, we see “Iaiole” dated to ca1300, “Iayle” to ca1440, “Iaile” to ca1660 and some bloke called Shakespeare, “jayl” to 1743–5 and good ol’ “jail” to 1860. Of course that last citation is R W Emerson, an American, so presumably Neil thinks that doesn’t count. But even if we imagine Australian English is derived only from British English — something that’s patently untrue — we still have precursors of the J form going back a mere 700 years.

“When spelling, I prefer The Queen’s English,” tweets Neil. Yeah? Which Queen? Elizabeth I?

I’ve nothing against people choosing to use different forms of language. Far from it. It adds colour, spice, variety. But that’s not the same as imagining that an older form is somehow “right” and newer forms “wrong”. Especially when your views are at odds with the vast majority of the language’s native speakers.

Just how far do you want to go back and freeze our language — or should I say “fossizlise” it — before it’s acceptable, Neil? A hint: When you’re “the only person” who thinks something is right, you’re probably not.

[Update 4.15pm: Google Ngram image added, with explanatory sentence. The graph showing all English usage is slightly misleading. Restricted to British English only, the “jail” form has been the more popular “only” since the 1940s. I’ll post a further update in due course.]