Wordsmithy and Rail Riding

This post has little to do with technology, but a lot to do with wordsmithy. Nomenclature in software engineering is a real pain in the ass. When writing a library for public consumption, it can be hard to pick the right names for things for a number of reasons. For example, the obvious name is used for something else, the non-obvious name is too obscure, the obvious name is a leaky abstraction, there is no reasonable single word or short phrase that describes what is happening, or you just can’t latch onto the right word. As Steve Martin said, “Some people have a way with words and other people … uh … not have way, I guess.”

There was a point when I was working at Bell Communications researc.  A college friend of mine, Jim Blandy, was there as well. He was assigned the task of porting a text editor, sam, from the Blit terminal to the MGR windowing system. Sam was originally written by Rob Pike. Jim had been scratching his head over the source for a long time and at one point, Jim turned to me and asked, “What’s a rasp?” I thought he was asking about woodworking tools, so I answered, “it’s a file with holes in it.” Jim responded in a way that showed his exasperation. Within the text editor code was a structure called a RASP. It represented a non-contiguous text file on disk, i.e., a file with holes in it.

I think about words a lot. It helped that my mom had a huge vocabulary and collected such books as Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, from which a learned such words as hircismus and papaphobia. The latter is a fear of the pope, although I can only imagine that its practical usage is narrow.

I recently read John Scalzi’s essay on the DNC convention and was struck by a couple of word choices: “shitshow” and “Wasserman-Schultz was ridden out of town on the nicest, most face-saving rail that could be found”.

Shitshow’s meaning is obvious. I just found it entertaining for its usage to describe the 2016 RNC Convention, since as another friend pointed out, there was been a norovirus outbreak at the convention so it was both a figurative and actual shitshow. Bravo.

Now. Rail-riding.

When I was in high school, I had a scheduling issue which resulted in me being shoe-horned into a Constitutional Law class that was well below my level so that I could meet the state requirement for history. The reasons behind this took up a long paragraph that I deleted. You don’t need to know. The teacher was a tired-looking man with a less-than-great classroom management skills, who had moments of greatness. There were points when he injected small lectures about things that were decidedly not in our text, and one of them was about the process of being rode out of town on a rail which has stuck in my mind.


Itinerant charlatans made their way through towns in the United States. Snake Oil salesmen and so on. If their scams came to light and they were caught by an angry mob, they were treated to an uniquely American punishment, which I note that Wikipedia refers to as ‘extrajudicial’ – a kinder term for mob law: tarring and feathering and being run out of town on a rail. Tarring and feathering is obvious, but my history teacher noted that the scoundrels were stripped of their clothes first. Getting a coating of hot tar is painful and long lasting. The covering of feathers makes it harder for the miscreant to write it off as an accident at the next town.

Now, being rode out of town on a rail. Many fences were “split-rail fences” like the one in the picture above. These were crude affairs, at best. The culprit was put on the rail, which was then hoisted up on the shoulders of a couple men who would then have nice jog out of town with the perp bouncing along painfully. I wondered what kept the perp on the rail. Why not drop off and run? If he was bound, would it better to let himself hang? Maybe the fear of further mob justice was an incentive to keep balance. I think about these things.

If you are ever under the delusion that we are more imaginative than our forebears because we have iPhones and distributed music services, just think about being run out of town on a rail and that will put those thoughts to rest.

At this point, considering how comprehensive the punishment is, I’m having difficulty thinking of a way that someone could make it gentle without it completely losing it’s teeth. Maybe if you left out the tar and feathers. Maybe if you used a wider, smooth, rounded rail. In other words: a log, which is no longer a rail. If you padded the rail, it becomes a parade float.

Yeah, I wonder about these things.

One thought on “Wordsmithy and Rail Riding”

  1. FYI, I was taught that tar-and-feathering was typically fatal. It may not be so, but that’s what I was taught.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.