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The headline in the Daily Telegraph summed up the troubles on British railways: “Passengers face months of delays”. This came the day after Railtrack closed the West Coast main line south of Glasgow for three days to check for faults following a fatal crash, and only three days before virtually the whole system was shut down for a complete day for repairs.

The railways have suffered much opprobrium since the winter day in 1991 when an unwise employee of the then British Rail named Terry Worrall blamed delays on the fact that “the wrong kind of snow” had fallen. I need not add to their troubles. But the headline did lead to momentary musings on the etymological collision between delay and passenger.

That’s because the essence of the word, so far as its history is concerned, is its temporariness. A passenger is somebody who passes, from the Old French adjective passager, fleeting, transitory. This sense survives in the name of the passenger-pigeon, that archetypal bird of passage that flew great distances in search of food; it even survives the bird itself, driven into extinction nearly a century ago.

The first sense of the word in English was that of a traveller on foot, a wayfarer. As recently as 1828, Sir Walter Scott wrote, in The Fair Maid of Perth: “She ... reached the wynd by the narrow lanes... Even these comparatively lonely passages were now astir with passengers”. But the word had moved on by then — Walter Scott’s use was beginning to be a bit old-fashioned and outside historical novels you often had to make clear what you meant by amending it to foot-passenger (though Charles Dickens, for example, was still using it more than twenty years later). The standard sense was by that date the one we use now: somebody who had paid money to be conveyed by ship, later also by road; very soon travel by train would be added to the list.

The word often has a passive connotation — a passenger “is carried in some vessel or vehicle”, as one of my dictionaries puts it — so it’s hardly surprising that it began to be applied to somebody who contributes nothing to an enterprise. This usage is actually quite old: it was first recorded in 1852. It derives from the sport of rowing at the ancient English universities: a passenger was a man who did little or nothing to help the boat along, who had to be carried by the efforts of the other rowers. (And if you define a passenger as somebody who “doesn’t pull his weight”, as I was about to before looking it up, you are making two references to rowing, as that idiom comes from the same source.)

Perhaps it was this negative aspect to the word that caused the newly-privatised rail companies some five years ago to ordain that their passengers would in future be called customers. Or perhaps it was a bit of subtle human-resources psychology aimed at the staff, in the hope that customers might gain more respect than passengers ever did. That the Telegraph used passenger in its headline confirms this was one railway usage that didn’t stick.

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Page created 11 Nov 2000