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VOL. 38 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 15, 2014

Compound phrases like ‘rail house’ go undefined

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The quest continues for a definition of rail house, a term found in business names across several countries.

Most Rail Houses are eateries or drinkeries, but there’s a rec center, an event venue, a B&B, a brewery or two, office buildings and more. A typical Rail House is near the tracks, has a train station motif, and may be located in a remodeled railway building.

So, why isn’t rail house in dictionaries?

“Many useful compound phrases have been left out of dictionaries under the assumption (usually wrong) that they are understandable if you understand both parts,” explains Erin McKean, cofounder of Wordnik. “[I]n this case it seems ... more complex.” Amen!

The variety of businesses using rail house in their names illustrates McKean’s point. As do the rail houses of art. A 2010 photograph by Paul Sharpe, “The Old Rail House,” features a deteriorating eight feet-by-12-foot structure beside a track in Vancouver, British Columbia. A rail-yard light obscures a corner of the tiny building.

A 2011 Marc Copeland photo, “Rail House,” shows a three-story trackside edifice (location not given). Steps ascend an embankment to the track; a fire escape goes up the structure’s side.

J.B. Brown’s 2011 “Rail house” depicts a homey, residentialesque building at a grade crossing in Carroll County, N.H.

Second in a three-part series

An article about the Lee’s Summit, Mo., Amtrak station reads: “[P]assengers board ... from an all-glass rail house across the tracks.” A photo shows that it’s spacious and modern. If you line these four buildings up and ask a Martian what they are, he’ll say, “I don’t know, but they’re not the same thing.”

Wrong! They’re all rail houses, in someone’s eyes. “What’s your definition?” I ask.

Lisa Lange of Railhouse Brewery in Aberdeen, N.C., says a rail house is a building by “a scale track that weighs freight cars when they’re diverted.”

At Roanoke Railhouse Brewery, Steve Davidson’s “understanding is that railhouse is interchangeable with roundhouse.” A poster at his place reads, “[R]ailroads used roundhouses, or railhouses, as junction centers for trains.”

A meeting place, then, as for distributors to pick up product.

Or for customers to eat and drink, as they do at Maquet’s Rail House in Pekin, Ill. Where Dustin Maquet’s definition is a “warm and inviting place next to the tracks.”

Richard and Annmarie Riley own a warm and inviting place: a B&B in Chesterton, Ind. Definitions were not a factor in selecting their business’s name. It’s an inn, made from a railway building. Riley’s Rail House just felt right. On nearby tracks, trains go noisily by – I hear one while chatting with Rich.

Contributing to rail house complexity are property developers and their co-conspirators. For instance, Zecc Architects of Utrecht, the Netherlands, remodels a trackside cottage in nearby Santpoort-Noord in 2012, and writers who cover such happenings tout the abode as a rustic yet modern “glass and steel rail house.” Many a real estate pro calls single- and multi-family dwellings near tracks rail houses. These things impart meaning to a puzzling term.

Next week: Rail house roots. Plus ... the defining moment.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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