I came across the word, ‘train-wreck’ and ‘train-wreck style,’ both associated with singers behaviors these couple of days in newspaper articles and clips on internet sites after the sudden death of Amy Winehouse; for examples;

  • Dark star: Why Amy Winehouse is not just a celebrity train-wreck? – www. slate com.
  • Public Speaking, Train-Wreck Style: When her turn comes to speak at the dinner, she (Anne Hathaway) awkwardly seizes the microphone being passed around the table and adopts the tone of a stand-up comic telling sick jokes – NYT Jan 9, 2009.

The first example can be referred to an ‘accident’ likened to train-wreck’ of the celebrity. But second example apparently does not seem to be referring to any train accident. I checked both Oxford Dictionary and Merriam Webster Dictionary, but there’s no entry of ‘train-wreck style, nor character.’ Does it mean a bankrupt character or behavior style of a person? What does ‘Train-wreck style’ exactly mean?

3 Answers 3


The idea of using train-wreck to describe a person comes from not only the awful calamity of a literal train wreck, but also the macabre pleasure that the general public seems to derive from viewing such a spectacle. It is the morbid interest that we have in watching other people destroy their own lives that really gives "train-wreck" its meaning.

"Train-wreck style" is an extension of this idea. In your example, Anne Hathaway's character "offers an indelible, if sometimes repellent portrait of a recovering addict who makes people squirm." Her character is the train-wreck; the speech she gives at her sister's wedding is delivered in a "train-wreck style" because we can all see the awkward and embarrassing end of her disastrous attempts to heal from her addiction, but we can't help but watch her anyway.


You asked whether "self-destructive style" could be substituted for "train-wreck style" and it is similar, except that "train-wreck style" is publicly self-destructive. You cannot be a train-wreck in private, although you might be very self-destructive in private.

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    To add - At least here in the United States, a train (or car) wreck is one of those things that people feel compelled to watch. In many cases in the case of a car accident, it's not the accident itself that causes traffic to back up, but spectators' fascination with watching.
    – Shauna
    Jul 25, 2011 at 13:11
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    +1 - Yes. The point of describing something as a "train wreck" is to say that it is so disastrously awful that you can't help but watch.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 25, 2011 at 13:52
  • +1 for "not only the awful calamity of a literal train wreck, but also the macabre pleasure that the general public seems to derive from viewing such a spectacle."
    – Chad
    Jul 25, 2011 at 16:55
  • "Macabre pleasure" can also be expressed as, "It's horrible, but I can't look away." I think reality television has sometimes been described as train-wreck television.
    – Don Kirkby
    Jul 26, 2011 at 4:11

It's not so much the style or character of the individual, but the nature of the wreck. A train wreck is usually something you can watch happen for a long time, helpless to stop it. Trains don't stop quickly, and they're on rails, so they're not free to steer around the problem. There is a point, a long time before the actual wreck occurs, that you know it's already happened, so to speak -- all that's left is to watch the physical manifestation of a probability wave that has already collapsed.

In the case of habitual, overt self-destructive behaviour (as demonstrated by the late Ms. Winehouse) it is, perhaps, easier to see how the metaphor fits. In Ms. Hathaway's case, it was only her public image that was destroyed, but the commenter was saying that once she began speaking she had already committed too much, there was nothing she could do to ward off the disaster.

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    +1 for pointing out that relatively speaking, train wrecks are quite drawn-out, from realisation of impending impact to everything coming to rest. I think you're right that the train being on a track, so it can't so it can't steer around, and heavy, so it can't stop in time, are key to the metaphorical usage. That and the fact that a train wreck makes a big mess. Jul 25, 2011 at 3:38
  • @Stan Rogeres/@FumbleFingers. Can I paraphrase 'train-wreck style' as 'self-destructive style'? How different they are? Jul 25, 2011 at 3:52

It means, approximately, "in a manner tending towards disaster" or "in a way which can end only badly."

  • I don't think this is correct. I think Kit is right -- there has to be the aspect of the macabre fascination with watching the disaster happen.
    – tylerl
    Jul 25, 2011 at 6:21

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