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shameless pleading

Trainwreck

Of course, back then we actually had railroads.

Dear Word Detective:  On a recent episode of “Mad Men,” a person was referred to as a “trainwreck.”  That usage seemed anachronistic to me.  When did “trainwreck” start to mean a person whose life was out of control? — James E. Powell.

Good question.  I must admit that I haven’t been watching “Mad Men,” an AMC network series about the advertising industry in New York City in the early 1960s (which was largely centered on Madison Avenue, thus the “Mad”).  I did catch part of one early episode, but it gave me a creepy “trying much too hard” vibe that made it unwatchable for me.  “Mad Men” could use a dose of Stan Freberg.

Picking out the anachronisms on Mad Men has become a cottage industry among its more obsessive fans (just Google “Mad Men anachronisms”), but most “catches” seem to have to do with typography (fonts invented in the 1990s) and wallpaper patterns.  The only one that really jumped out at me as a major blooper was the show’s use of 1970s-vintage IBM Selectric II typewriters in the office scenes.  Of course, if that’s the worst that the nitpickers can come up with, chances are good that there aren’t any really egregious verbal anachronisms lurking in the show’s scripts.

And so it would seem in the case of the use of “trainwreck,” although the exact vintage of that expression is hard to pin down.  My first reaction, like yours, was that it must be an anachronism.  I don’t remember hearing a person called a “trainwreck” until at least the late 1970s or early 1980s, and even then, as I recall, it was the kind of usage one encountered in press coverage of Hollywood (“Friends described the star as a ‘trainwreck’ after her divorce”), rather than the sort of thing you’d use in casual conversation.  At least one dictionary of slang also dates the term to the 1980s.

But then I searched the archives of ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and discovered that back in 2005 linguist Ben Zimmer had posted an excerpt from a 1953 Washington Post article about the jargon of the TV industry.  In between “goulash” (a variety show) and “face factory” (the make-up room) was “train wreck,” meaning a TV show that was, for whatever reason, “a mess.”  It seems reasonable to assume that if a figurative use of “train wreck” to mean “mess” was TV jargon common enough to be included in a glossary in the early 1950s, the subsequent ten years until the period of “Mad Men” would be plenty of time for the term to migrate to Madison Avenue and be applied to an individual.

So while “trainwreck” didn’t become common in popular slang until at least the late 1970s, it’s not impossible that someone in the advertising industry would have used it in the 1960s.  Of course, we’ll probably never know whether the show’s writers actually knew that or simply dropped “trainwreck” into the script without thinking.

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