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shameless pleading

Caboose

A room with vroom.

Dear Word Detective:  I teach second grade in Southern California. I have a student that asked me where the word “caboose” came from. I’ve tried to find a source for this, but haven’t been very successful. Can you help me out? I’d sure appreciate it. Anything to spark interest in language! — S.M.

Spark interest in language, eh? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Of course, it’ll be cute at first, little nippers running around, running off at the mouth, saying cute things at breathtakingly inappropriate moments. After all, back in the 50s and 60s, Art Linkletter turned them into tiny cash cows with his “Kids Say the Darndest Things” books and TV shtick. But now the spotty little monsters have smartphones, access to the internet, their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, and apparently tireless thumbs. And if you think literacy is improving the world, I suggest you take a close look at trending topics on Twitter.

“Caboose” is defined by Merriam-Webster.com as “a part of a train that is attached at the back end and is used by people who work on the train,” which is like explaining an ocean liner as “a long, pointy thing that floats on the water.” It totally misses what makes a caboose cool. A “caboose” is a little house on wheels that hooks onto the back end of a train. It’s got windows, bunk beds, a galley for cooking and an office for the conductor. Some cabooses (I keep wanting to type “cabeese”) even have a little cupola on top so the conductor can keep an eye on things all the way to the front of the train.

The first “caboose,” however, had no connection to railroads. When the word first appeared in English in the mid-18th century, it meant a small cooking cabin or kitchen on the deck of a merchant sailing vessel. “Caboose” was also used to mean the cast iron cooking stove inside the cabin. The word “caboose” comes from the Dutch “kabuis” (or Low German “kabuse”) meaning “cabin on a ship’s deck.” The use of “caboose” to mean a crew car on a railway train arose in the mid-19th century. That was the beginning of the heyday of long-distance rail transport in the US, so it made sense to have eating and sleeping facilities on freight trains that often didn’t stop for hundreds of miles.

Cabooses seem neat today, and they were definitely a good idea in the 19th century, but train crews were apparently less than thrilled with the conditions in some cabooses, and slang terms such as ” the crummy,” “the hack,” “the doghouse,” “the bone-breaker,” “the clown wagon” and, ominously, “the hearse” were common.

According to what I’ve read online, “cabooses” are, sadly, going the way of the dodo, made unnecessary by technology and shorter rail runs. But I live about a mile north of a rail crossing with fair amount of train traffic, and I’m still seeing cabooses. Granted, that’s on moonlit nights and the trains make no noise as they pass, but I think it counts anyway.

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