Ever since James Watt’s 1781 steam engine railways and steam engines themselves have had a popular and significant place in the English language and psychology. It should however be noted that Watt was not the first inventor to play with steam power, by almost 200 years.
Steam trains while rare and often merely historical anachronisms are still part of the culture and language.
This post is about steam and rail’s impact on popular idiom in the English language.
The right/wrong track – these two opposing phrases describe a good or a bad direction of travel, but this is often metaphorical. “I appreciate the work that’s gone into them; but I’m sorry but I think all of these proposals, while interesting, are the wrong track for us, at least at this time.”
Steaming away/ahead/on – this is a very evocative phrasal verb it means to be making good progress with something. “It’s very quiet today, is Peter at a friend’s?” “No actually he’s steaming away on a new class project – his new teacher seems to really motivate him.”
To be/come of the rails – this is obviously a disaster for a train, and it describes negative situations and/or state of affairs quite nicely. “Ever since Nancy left him Simon seems to have completely come of the rails. I wish I knew what to do to help him.”
To build up (or have) a head of steam – this phrase describes the slow (by modern standards) process of starting a steam engine. “Now that we’ve got a head of steam the project is progressing well, but it was slow going to begin with.”
To be on/off (the) track – this normally works like an adjective describing something that is working as it is supposed to. “The team is on track to do well this season, even if we still have some serious competition for the championship.”
To derail something – similar to “coming of the rails” this turns rail into a verb, if someone derails something their actions (perhaps deliberately) cause problems or even prevent something. “Sam has booked holiday for the rest of the month. It seems like he’s trying everything he can to derail the product launch.”
To be losing/picking up steam – these two phrases are opposites if something is losing steam it is losing momentum and/or power/significance – if it is picking up steam it is gaining in some way. “Despite all their innovations Apple seem to be losing steam in the market.”
To steam through something – this means to keep going despite adverse conditions or opposition. “Karen steamed through the rain; despite being unused to running in bad weather; she finished in the top 5%.”
To railroad something (through) – this means to insist on something, and/or to do something despite criticism etc. “Dave railroaded his plan through the board meeting… so I guess we’re all going to be working for him now.” This can also mean to side-line or marginalise the opposition, so make sure to watch out for the context. “Jo railroaded her critics at the press conference; they just weren’t ready for her.”
Steam-powered – is used as an adjective to describe something driven by steam inspiring confidence in its power but also exists as a website for Steam (web link).
Steam clean – is actually a more recent technology than steam engines (which are typically anything but clean). It’s a cleaning method for typically for fabrics, either clothes or carpets, but is also used in some industrial settings. Metaphorically to steam clean something means to give it a periodic check to make sure it is above criticism. “Head office wants to audit our finances next month. So if you have any extra time this week; start steam cleaning the accounts.”
Steam-punk – referees to an alternative subculture and a genre of literature, and the arts referencing, but updating and otherwise modifying Victorian dress and conventions.