Technical Terms from the Past

In yesterday’s blog post, I may have mentioned in passing the Dummy Railroad, which once served Old Orchard Beach, Ocean Park, and Camp Ellis during the summer months.

Jean, the Harmon Museum curator, said that it was called the Dummy Railroad for two reasons, but usually she only told people the first — which was that the local joke was the train was “too dumb” to turn around, and had to back from Camp Ellis to the Old Orchard station on its return trip.  In reality, there wasn’t any room at Camp Ellis to build either a turntable, or lay a loop track so the engine could be “correctly” at the front of the train on the return trip.

The second reason for this particular nickname, the Dummy Railroad, is that the engine was steam-powered and ran so quietly that people couldn’t hear it; that it was, in essence, and compared to, say, the big, noisy engines of the Boston and Maine Railroad, a “dumb” engine.

She then went on to explain that, back in the day, people had used to say of those who had no hearing and who could not vocalize, that they were “deaf and dumb.”  And she added something to the effect that this had been a terrible thing to say.

But…”deaf and dumb” or simply “dumb” had been, back in the day, a technical term — a diagnosis.  Yes, it’s fallen out of favor, and no, we don’t hear it much anymore, except, maybe from grandparents.  But “dumb” means, “can’t talk.”  That’s why we say “dumb animals” — not because animals are stupid.

It gets a little tricky, when technical words from the past collide with our present-day sensibilities, and Jean’s discussion reminded me of the folks in upstate New York who want to abolish all the things called “Kills” in their area, because kill is horrible and bloody and What Are We Teaching Our Children?  It hasn’t seemed to occur to any of those horrified that We Could Be Teaching Our Children that the area was settled by the Dutch and that the Dutch word for “river” or “stream” is “kill.”

So, anyway.

It’s raining, and I have words to write.  I love it when a plan comes together.


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