Return of the foamers

On the occasion of Warren Buffett’s purchase of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, Dan Barry did an “Ideas & Trends” piece (“Awesome Train Set, Mr. Buffett”) in the New York Times on November 8 about the intense railfans sometimes known as foamers — a topic last discussed in this blog in April.

Interviews with Steve Barry, the managing editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine, and Steve Glischinski, who’s written several books about trains, touched on the name foamers:

Both Mr. Barry and Mr. Glischinski acknowledged that railroad employees long ago christened railfans as “foamers,” though they differ in their understanding of the term’s origin. Mr. Barry said it derives from Foamite, which stands for “Far Out and Mentally Incompetent Train Enthusiasts”; Mr. Glischinski said it comes from the notion of foaming-at-the-mouth craziness.

Mr. Barry said that some railfans now proudly declare themselves foamers to deny the term its derogatory intent. Even so, Mr. Glischinski doesn’t care for enthusiasts who say “I went foaming today.”

“I find that weird,” he said. “I am just a railroad fan.”

He also noted that some railroad employees have other acronymic readings, one of which (in Dan Barry’s phrasing) “uses a very, very bad word”.

There’s a lot here, from the rejection of the label foamer by some railfans to the attempt to reclaim it by others, plus the coining of a verb foam for engaging in railfan activities, not to mention another piece of NYT indirection in the avoidance of fuck.

But my focus in this posting is on people’s attempts to compose etymologies for foamer. The obvious source involves a reference to foaming at the mouth (as Glischinski suggests). But many people find straightforward accounts like this one unsatisfying, so they search for something more interesting.

Stories — especially complex ones with specific persons mentioned and other specific details provided — are satisfying. People love stories, as I said in my earlier foamer posting (where I called this love of stories narratophilia), and so they concoct etymythological narratives. (The term etymythology is Larry Horn’s, from a 2004 American Speech article, “Spitten image: Etymythology and fluid dynamics”.) The scholarly literature on word and phrase origins is chock-full of thoughtful discussions of etymythologies, especially narrative ones, like the foamer story I posted about earlier.

Another popular type of etymythology is the (false) acronym, like the one offered for foamer by Steve Barry. A passion for acronymic etymologies seems to be a modern phenomenon (if an intellectual historian hasn’t looked into the history, it would make a nice, but challenging, project), but by now they’re rampant; it’s easy to collect hundreds of them.

You can see the attraction of acronymic etymologies: they seem to provide some sense for material that is otherwise just arbitrarily associated with meaning. (Borrowing from another language is yet another route to etymythology. There are lots of fanciful borrowing accounts out there.)

The acronym account above for foamer, treating the term as a shortening of an acronym FOAMITE, is especially devious and implausible. As far as I can tell, foamite as a term for railfans is rare, much rarer than foamer, and appears to have been devised as a variant of foamer, not the other way around. In any case, it’s really hard for me to imagine Far [or in some accounts, Freaked] Out And Mentally Incompetent Train Enthusiasts being used as a label for railfans.

Some acronym fans have been more ingenious. There are reports of foamer being derived directly as an acronym: Foaming-Over-At-the-Mouth Excited Railfan.

As for the acronym with a “very, very bad word” concealed in it, that would appear to FRN (Fucking Rail Nuts), which is not an acronym in the strict sense, but in my terms an initialism (read as a sequence of letter names). But it’s at least plausible as a piece of initialistic avoidance (cf. WTF), and fucking rail nuts is imaginable as a contemptuous epithet.

3 Responses to “Return of the foamers”

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

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

  2. The Chink files « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a good story is better than a dull one, even if the dull one’s the truth (some postings here, here, and here). The story about slit-eyed or slant-eyed people vs. round-eyed people (note folk anatomy […]

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

    […] a good story is better than a dull one, even if the dull one’s the truth (some postings here, here, and here). The story about slit-eyed or slant-eyed people vs. round-eyed people (note folk anatomy […]

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