Foamers and stories

For some reason, foamers (intense railfans) have been in the news recently. I came across the term in Details magazine, and then found that Nancy Friedman had written on her blog citing a NYT story on it. Details to follow.

The usual story about the word foamer is that it comes from the verb foam, as in “foam at the mouth”, used here to describe intense enthusiasm. But Friedman quoted someone who offered a much more complex story, which to my nose stinks of invention (whether deliberate and playful or else innocent but gullible). The fact is, people like stories, very particular ones, and find appeals to general tendencies (to metonymy, metaphor, semantic generalization or restriction, whatever) unsatisfying — even that’s what scholars of word and phrase origins mostly have to offer.

(An earlier version of the material here was posted to ADS-L on 25 March.)

First, the Details story, in the April 2009 issue, p. 112-115: “Trainspotting”, by Steven Kurutz. Kurutz explains (p. 114):

[Gary] Forbes is what’s known in railroad circles as a foamer–a fan so ardent in his love for locomotion that he all but froths at the mouth.  The term, coined by Amtrak workers, carries a whiff of disdain.

There’s an Urban Dictionary entry that says much the same, but adds an extension to “anyone who gets excited about something so much that they start foaming at the mouth.”

There’s a website, of course, here.

Then, from Nancy Friedman’s Fritinancy blog on 9 March, quoting from a New York Times travel feature by Andy Isaacson about riding Amtrak across the United States:

Around the train car lounged Americans traveling for work and others for family, people for whom train travel is a necessity and those for whom it’’s merely quaint, first-time riders and probably even a few “”foamers”” –— the nickname that train workers privately give the buffs who salivate over the sight of a locomotive.

Friedman added:

Foamer is North American slang, used by rail buffs (sometimes called railfans) as well as non-enthusiasts. (The pejorative term is FRN, for Fucking Rail Nut.) The UK equivalent is trainspotter.

(But a commentator maintains that the more direct UK equivalent is gricer.)

Now, the story. Friedman writes:

That sentence [in the NYT story] suggests that foamer derives from “foaming at the mouth,” but a retired locomotive engineer who goes by “Hoghead” sets the record straight in Yahoo Answers.

Hoghead writes:

The Western Pacific (now the UP) runs the “Feather River Route” eastward along the Feather River to Portola and beyond. The timber industry has now been gutted, but at the time there were a lot pollutants being dumped into the river upstream, primarily waste from mills and stagnant log ponds.

This caused the formation of copious amounts of foam in back washes and eddies along the river, a favorite place for rail buffs and photographers.

Often times, these people would wade into the river to get the right angle for a photo, usually knee deep or deeper amidst the foam, hence the moniker was applied; “Foamers.” Its meaning has been upgraded to describe an over zealous aficionado of rail operations.

Notice that the story is detailed — with references to specific times, places, and practices — and also unreferenced. Instantly, scholars of word and phrase origins smell a rat. The story isn’t necessarily wrong — there are genuine origin accounts that are similarly specific (though there’s some verification for them) — but this one is probably bogus, probably a bit of etymythology.

The fact is, ordinary people (who are not scholars of word and phrase origins) tend to think that

A good story is better than the truth.

In postings to ADS-L a long time ago, I called this idea narratophilia ‘love of stories’ (yes, I know there’s another sense, which is not relevant here), and noted how powerful it was. Human beings are story-tellers. As Erving Goffman once observed, we spend an enormous amount of time telling each other the stories of our lives. We use stories to make sense of things.

I started a posting on narratophilia long ago, but was overwhelmed by the number of examples of etymythology, and by how much there was to say about them. Think of this posting as a promissory note.

5 Responses to “Foamers and stories”

  1. meg Says:

    I look forward to those future posts. Narratophilia is one of the things I try to get through to the students in my History of the English Language class. Developing a nose for etymythology comes in handy when dealing with all sorts of internet hoaxes as well.

  2. Philip Says:

    Maybe David Foster Wallace made it up, but in “Infinite Jest,” a foamer is a beer: “a cold foamer on a hot day.”

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Philip: foamer for ‘(glass of) beer’ is a natural derivative; the English suffix -er can do all sorts of wonderful things. And there are a modest number of Google hits for foamer in this sense, in fact for “cold foamer”.

    In addition, there are a huge number of hits for foamer as the name of a device or machine that creates, dispenses, or sprays foam (for various sorts of foam, including foamed milk for your coffee).

    My posting didn’t say that foamer could only refer to railfans — only that this meaning is out there.

  4. Truth, memory, and stories « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] here and here. And on narratophilia — the love of, desire for, (satisfying) stories – here and here.) … “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd,” Malcolm has […]

  5. Terminological precedence « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] My sense, from a 2009 posting: […]

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