Grant Barrett started off this morning’s episode of A Way With Words with a tribute to train conductors and the singsong way they rounded up passengers lingering on the platform by calling out the names of the stops along the way, something like, “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cu-ca-monga!” wrapping it up with the still-familiar, “bo-AAAAHHHd!” Grant likened the exaggerated pronunciation their speech to the wordplay of voice caricaturist Mel Blanc.

(This was a replay of a show broadcast on November 9, 2009, so you won’t see it on the home page of the show’s web site, but I found it in the discussion forums.)

Cohost Martha Barnette gave a similar example of a train conductor in New York State reeling off the names, “OSS in ing, poh KIPP see,” and so on with the New York twang I love so much, and they both gushed over the elision of “all aboard” into a single-syllable “BOAR!”

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a train conductor do this, except in movies. I was, however, once on a train waiting to leave London from Saint Pancras Station when a teenager opened the door to the compartment, stuck his head in and asked me, in his best clipped Cockney, “ask USE me mite, duh CYST rain GOAT uh PUTT uh SPA?” The translation circuits in my brain came to within milliseconds of a truly spectacular blowout before the nickel dropped and I realized he’d asked me if the train stopped at Potter’s Bar, a town along the route.

The only other thing I can compare this with is calling out commands to march troops in formation, something I’ve been trained to do by a professional, believe it or not. It’s supposed to be a bonding experience for airmen in leadership school, but to me it was mostly a glaring reminder of my limitations. As much as I loved to do it, I never could quite get the hang of it.

We were to divide commands into two distinctly separate portions: A preparatory command, and a command of execution. The preparatory command was the verbal wake-up that warned the airmen that we were about to order them to do something. The command of execution told them when to do it.

To make each command as easy to recognize as possible, we were to make them as different from each other as we could. The most common way to do this was to boil each word down to a single, explosive syllable.

A formation of airman is called a flight, and to call them to attention we were supposed to shout, “FLIGHT!” This was both a preparatory command and a command of execution wrapped up in one word, like “At ease.” We barked it out, and a split-second later the airmen did it without any further prompting.

But we were given to understand that correctly pronouncing the word flight or any other word as a command was really very uncool. The closest I could get to the sound that came out of our instructor’s mouth was something like, “FLYeee!” I say it was closest because he didn’t like the way I did it, demonstrating several times. He very definitely didn’t want me to pronounce the “T” on the end, and he seemed to be lengthening the vowel sound while keeping it in the back of his throat, but no matter how many times I tried to imitate his example, I never got it to sound the way he said it should. Eventually I gave up and just shouted, “FLIGHT!” It may not have been right, but it was certainly distinctive, because nobody else was saying it that way.

To get them moving, we commanded, “Forward, march!” Barking it out in single syllables, the preparatory command, forward, reduced it to something that resembled “foe-ODD!” And the command of execution ended up somewhere between “HARCH” and “HOTCH.” Getting it exactly right was really an art. Some guys could affect a very cool, Chuck Yaegerish drawl that sounded just like sergeants in the movies. The rest of us had to make do with a clunky imitation. Even a simple cadence, the “hut, too, tree, far.” we were all familiar with, was quite a trick to pull off well.

I suspect it’s the same with railroad conductors. There are probably some who make it look and sound so easy, and there are quite a few who are, and always will be working on their style but will never quite be able to pull it off.

One thought on “foe ODD, HOTCH!

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