Who, What, Why: Why are US train drivers called engineers?

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A collection of cultural artefacts

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The driver of the Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia is referred to as an engineer in the US, not a driver. Why?

Although it sounds odd to British ears today, train drivers were for some time known as engineers in 19th Century Britain.

The original meaning of engineer, as someone who designed or built engines or other machinery, goes back to the 1300s and has held to this day in both the UK and the US. But it can be applied to someone who operates equipment as well as the one responsible for its design, says British lexicographer Susie Dent.

From the 1730s "engineer" in North American English was being used as a synonym for "engineman", she says, applied specifically to the driver or operator of a fire engine, then later to drivers of steamships and steam-powered locomotives.

Image source, OED
Image caption, One definition for 'engineer', in the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this use in the UK in 1816 from the Asiatic Journal: "A locomotive engine was exploded at Newcastle, and several people lost their lives, from the folly of the man (calling himself an engineer), locking down the safety-valve, that his machine might go off in style!"

This use travelled across the Atlantic where, Dent says, the Americans are merely applying a more literal sense of "engineer". The suffix -eer usually indicates an "agent noun", she says, describing a person who performs the action of the verb, in this case operating/acting on an engine.

The term engineer as driver is rarely used in the UK today, although a trade union representing train drivers is called the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), founded in the late 19th Century. An Aslef spokesman said the name reflected the meaning of the time.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Thomas and friends - operated by drivers or engineers?

Americans would never call the operator of a train a driver, always engineer, says Jesse Sheidlower, the former US editor-at-large of the OED. "It's a longstanding feature of American English. It's been in American use since the early 1830s, and included in dictionaries of Americanisms since the mid-19th Century."

There are no translation problems for fans of the popular Thomas & Friends children's show, which is adapted in the US so that drivers like Mr Perkins are referred to as engineers.

The answer

  • the earliest documented use of engineer as train driver was 1816 in the UK
  • it means someone who operates equipment as well as the older meaning involving design/construction
  • today, Americans use both meanings of the word, but there are only remnants of the driver meaning in the UK

Reporting by Tom Geoghegan