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Caboose, clean slate, kaput, sheriff

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January 6th, 2015

Caboose

We don’t see one all that often today, but the caboose was an essential part of the freight train for many years. It served as shelter for crew members, whose tasks included switching points on the tracks and watching the cars in transport to ensure against load shifting and other hazards.

But where does the name come from? Most likely, it is a derivative of the French word “cambose,” which dates back to at least the eighteenth century and refers to the kitchen cabin on a ship. In time, railroad workers borrowed the word, which eventually evolved into “caboose.”

“One of the crew leaned out of the caboose to get a better view of the train’s freight cars.”

Clean slate

To start with a “clean slate” is to begin anew, to get a fresh jump on things. There are two theories on where this comes from, the first being that it originated in England where, on New Year’s Day, some practiced the tradition of cleaning their chimney slates. The idea was that it would bring good luck to their household.

The second hypothesis, which is a bit simpler, is that “clean slate” refers to a newly erased chalkboard. Either way, today we use the phrase almost universally in reference to starting over.

“Once he had served his sentence, the court gave him a clean slate. His record was expunged.”

Kaput

When something is “kaput,” it is finished, over, dead. A slang phrase still common in the English language today, the word comes from the German term “kaputt,” meaning lost or ruined. Although the German word has roots in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that it began turning up in American slang.

“Because I forgot to check the oil, the pistons ran dry and seized up. The engine is kaput.”

Sheriff

“Howdy, Sheriff!” We see them in Westerns. We see them patrolling the streets in our neighborhoods. We all know what or, more accurately, who a sheriff is, but you might find the origin somewhat surprising.

“Sheriff” is really a contraction of the English title “shire reeve,” a person responsible for maintaining law and order in a designated shire (the equivalent of a county today). A good example would be the Sheriff or Shire Reeve of Nottingham.

“It seems like there’s a sheriff in every Western I’ve watched.”

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