Friday, May 17, 2013

It's like Grand Central Station

There are two Grand Central stations in New York City, not just one. One of them is a post office. The other is a subway station. At neither can you catch an Amtrak train bound for Albany.

If you are like me, you have been hearing (and probably repeating) variations on the line "It's like Grand Central Station around here" all your life. The phrase brings to mind a busy train station, one that is synonymous with hustle and bustle. But the Grand Central we're thinking of isn't really a station at all. Its official name is Grand Central Terminal.

Whenever I leaf through The Christian Science Monitor, I always start at the back. That's because Ruth Walker's Verbal Energy column sits at the top of the penultimate page. In the March 18 issue, which I didn't pick up until this week, she writes about Grand Central Terminal, which marked its centennial earlier this year.

So what's the difference between a station and a terminal? A station, Walker explains, is "a stopping point along the way," while a terminal is the endpoint. The train lines all end at Grand Central, so that makes it a terminal, not a station.

We speak of terminal cancer and other terminal illnesses because there is no cure and no hope. It's the end of the line. We don't speak of less serious illnesses as stations, but I suppose we could. They may hold us back for a time, but then we get moving again.

Walker says station, meaning "regular stopping place," was first applied to coaches in 1797. Later its use spread to trains and buses. The English word terminus was coined in the 16th century, Walker writes, but later terminal became more common.

Reading the first chapter of Rhys Bowen's novel Murphy's Law this morning, I found this line: "If my ma had still been alive, she'd have said I asked for it, too -- always did have big ideas beyond my station and a mouth that was going to get me into trouble." We don't often hear references to one's "station in life" these days, thank goodness, but as used by Bowen's narrator and probably by most people who used the phrase in earlier times, it suggests not so much a stopping point along the way as a terminus.

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