Would the phrase "Full Steam Ahead" be appropriate to use in reference to trains? I know there where plenty of steam powered trains, but I thought it was a nautical term. Would it have been used by the Engineer (Assuming that is the name for the chief train operator.)?

  • I'll note that the physics of a steam engine don't change from being put on rails instead of water: if you give the engine full steam, it'll go at maximum power. Now, whether "full steam ahead" was used in train jargon, or just in ship jargon, is a different matter. – Marthaª Jul 18 '11 at 15:57
  • @Martha: That is basically what I was asking. I'd certainly imagine that for any given steam powered device Full Steam Ahead would have the similar implications, but I feel that if the pilot has full control of the "power" setting for the vehicle the need for the Jargon would be negligible. – aslum Jul 18 '11 at 17:52
  • So you're saying this is a history question, rather than an English question? <evil grin> (I'm just kidding: history of usage is on-topic, as far as I'm aware.) – Marthaª Jul 18 '11 at 17:58
  • I'd say it's more a matter of semantics. Of course that doesn't preclude the history of usage from being relevant. – aslum Jul 18 '11 at 18:16

From the entry in TheFreeDictionary.com:

full steam ahead with all possible energy and enthusiasm full speed ahead The real estate market has heated up, and building is going full steam ahead.

Usage notes: sometimes used in the form it's full steam ahead: It's full steam ahead for Internet service providers today.

Etymology: based on the literal use of full steam in ships, which makes them go at their top speed

So figuratively speaking, you could apply this to anything you like. No rule is broken if you use it metaphorically about things other than ships.


You could use it metaphorically, or you could use the phrase full speed ahead which is more generic and according to google books, both pre-dates full steam ahead and is in more common use.

In answer to the other part of your question, I believe historically, the order would be given by the person in command of the bridge and then transferred by a sort of mechanical telegraph system to an engineer.

speed vs. steam

  • Sorry just noticed you were more interested in trains. I don't know about that but I guess it was more of a team effort between a fireman and driver. Whereas on a ship, this would be a fixed order passed down to the engineer. – z7sg Ѫ May 31 '11 at 23:54

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