The Legacy of Steam Trains in the English Language

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.

peter on the midland railway

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.


The English Excursion Experience

For many students of English learning the language demands and requires several years of classes. Understandably there is an interest in getting an edge in this. Extra classes, holidays or even a combination the holiday course, something we have many years of experience in offering. However, most students on holiday courses spend a lot of the time as fairly passive learners in a classroom setting which is not to be devalued, especially where opportunities are lacking.

However, for some students who are ready to start being more fully active learners, and at the same time move away from traditional classroom based learning. In the UK we are lucky as course providers for a number of reasons. We’re surrounded by English and while there are some 300 languages spoken every day in London English is the principal language of education and work in all almost all settings. We have a reliable, affordable and extensive public transport network. There are a vast number of cultural and educational destinations.

To take advantage of this at Winchester we’ve developed and run a programme for students who wish to: activate passive knowledge; move into more independent use of the language; start to direct their own learning experience; gain confidence using the language in real world situations rather than classroom simulations. We call this programme the English Excursion Experience.

It originally grew out of a request from one of our partners to extend our academic year to accommodate their students more easily, adding a semester between May and August. Originally it was piloted as ‘the bridge’ since it ‘bridged’ the gap between our two academic years. Two other observations drove the development in the direction it has taken. Firstly, the students tended to have good grammatical knowledge but lacked confidence when actually using the language, especially productively. Secondly, students studying here, whether short or long-term, tended not to venture out independently in some cases despite interest in and knowledge of the possible destinations.

The English Excursion Experience will soon be going into its third year, at least for recruitment purposes, and we are now happy to open recruitment to institutions beyond our existing partners or even individuals themselves.

So what is different about the English Excursion Experience? Every week students are given the chance to research and organise their own excursions, followed by reflective writing in the form of a blog. The research is mainly done on-line, although on occasion it’s necessary to phone the venue, this supports their developing learner autonomy. The blog, which can be either public or private, allows learners to reflect on their preparations and performance during the excursion. Here are examples from this year’s blogs. Blog A Blog B

There are almost no restrictions on where the groups can go: London; lots to see there; Bath and Stonehenge; Southampton; Oxford; Hogwarts! well Platform 9 3/4; natural beauty spots; museums;  art galleries; or even close to home, to name just a few. As they choose where they go they also choose what they learn, as language input is guided by learners’ needs. The teacher instead of leading students on excursions supports the students taking them on an excursion.