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shameless pleading






And we don’t need a library.  We’ve got satellite TV.

Dear Word Detective:  I have heard the term “jerkwater town” and never thought much about it.  I inferred from the context that it was a small place that didn’t amount to much.  I recently encountered this in a book and began to wonder what its origin is.  Do you know? — Jo Ann Chase.

Yes, I am intimately familiar with the phrase “jerkwater town.”  The town nearest to us here in rural Ohio, East Bump, neatly matches the description given in the Journal of Genetic Psychology in 1936: “It was one of those jerkwater towns that have one lawyer, one drug store and no traffic cops.”  The only differences are that East Bump has no lawyer that I know of, and it does employ a police officer to guard against incursions from West Bump, although he only works part-time.  It also boasts a Post Office, two really awful restaurants and a seedy bar sporting, for some bizarre reason, a pirate motif.  Aaarrgh, Matey.

In any case, you inferred correctly about the connotation of “jerkwater.”  Something that is “jerkwater” is considered small, inferior and insignificant, with overtones of provincialism and hickdom.  Although most commonly applied to small, isolated (and thus presumably uncultured) towns, “jerkwater” can also describe anything considered unsophisticated, a “dead end” or “not up to snuff,” from schools (“It won’t be easy for him to get another job if he’s fired … Maybe at some jerkwater college at half what he’s getting now,” 1970) to vaudeville acts (“Vaudeville teams — from the jerkwater acts to specialists,” 1950).

The original logic behind “jerkwater” has long been gone from towns like East Bump, which is a shame.  In the early days of railroads, when the locomotives were steam-powered, the boiler’s supply of water needed to be refilled fairly often.  Large towns and cities had water towers by the tracks, and topping off the tank was simply a matter of pulling under the spigot and hooking up.  In smaller rural towns, however, such amenities were lacking, and a train crew in need of water faced the chore of fetching it by hand from a nearby stream.  As one account explained in 1945, “… train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank.”  “Jerk” in this context refers to the rough, sudden movement of lifting a bucket, often on a rope, from the creek.

In the late 19th century, trains that ran on branch lines through rural districts where such a ritual was routine became known as “jerkwater trains,” and the routes as “jerkwater lines.”  Almost immediately, “jerkwater” came to be a slang synonym for an isolated rural town served by such a line, and by 1897 “jerkwater” had taken on its modern meaning of “provincial, backward and insignificant.”

6 comments to Jerkwater.

  • Carl

    Nice job! The first time the word interested me, but not necessarily the first time I heard it, was when Bruce Willis referred to a town as a “jerkwater” town, in the movie “Last Man Standing”. I liked the directors effort to make the movie’s dialog time appropriate. Naturally I went on a Google quest for a definition, and so far this on is the best.

  • James Barré

    How many others have pointed out the word “vein” is misused in the blog title and should be “vain?”
    Shouldn’t happen on a web site devoted to words.
    Otherwise,that notwithstanding, a fun site.

  • admin

    “Vein” in the sense of “mood, tendency, spirit” dates back to the 16th century. “Vain” would make no sense whatsoever. But I admire your imperious tone.

    “Otherwise, that notwithstanding” is redundant.

  • Bob Coe

    I believe that this explanation, widespread as it seems to be, is totally bogus. Rather, a jerkwater is a very specific type of railroad water tower with a long spout for filling the tank in the tender of a steam locomotive. The spout was normally held in the “up” position by the weight of the water inside. To bring the spout to the “down” position and start the flow of water, a trainman had to pull (or “jerk”) on a rope attached to the spout. When the tank was full, he released the rope, and the spout would return to the “up” position. Many small towns along railroad lines had such towers, because early steam locomotives used water inefficiently and couldn’t go very far between fillings. A town without much but a jerkwater was referred to as a “jerkwater town”, a term that has survived much longer than the jerkwaters themselves.

  • Sargon

    This traditional explanation is quite incorrect. The term does derive from the railroading era, but has nothing to do with drawing water by hand. Quite the opposite:

    ” . . . Ramsbottom troughs, or ‘jerk-water’ system for filling the tenders while the train is in motion . . . ” (from The Elements of Railroading, Charles Paine, 1885).
    An excellent find. So now we turn to the website of the Ann Arbor Model Railroad Club for an explanation of how that was done:

    Kinnear, located two miles east of Dexter, was the site of Michigan’s first railroad track water pans, which were built in 1901. The pans were situated between the rails and heated during cold weather. Steam locomotives scooped up the water as they moved over the pans. The Kinnear pans and telegraph station were named after Wilson S. Kinnear, chief engineer of the Detroit River railroad tunnel.

    Final details from Wikipedia:

    A scoop is fitted to the underside of the locomotive’s tender (or the locomotive itself in the case of tank locomotives) in such a way that it can be raised or lowered, by a screw mechanism or a compressed air mechanism. The scoop feeds into a vertical pipe that discharges into the water tank… Venting on the tender needed to be free to allow a high release of expelled air from the tank.

  • Steve

    You might also add that a bit later the bucket brigade was done away with in some locations and replaced with a water pan between the tracks from which a properly equipped tender could scoop water as the train passed over, thereby replenishing the water in the tender. Such an activity was referred to in railroad slang as “jerking a drink”.

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