Week of July 25, 2021

Tough Towns, Tough People


For centuries cities have had more and less affluent sections, but the growth of industry and railroads often made that dividing line clearer, giving birth to the idiom about “the wrong side of the tracks.” This phenomenon was put nicely by author Thorne Smith in 1929: “In most commuting towns…there are always two sides of which tracks serve as a demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.”


“Thug” is originally a Hindi word meaning a cheat or thief. Beginning in 14th-century India, Thugs were organized groups of highwaymen who robbed and killed travelers after first gaining their trust as fellow travelers.


During Seattle’s railroad construction boom of the mid-1800, logs were rolled to construction sites down roads made of logs, which helped keep them out of the plentiful local mud. These wooded roads were called “skid roads,” and the original skid road is Yesler Way in Seattle. However, since railroad work was seasonal and often done by transient workers, the neighborhoods around the “skid roads” were often impoverished and became known as “skid rows” and a line dividing wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.


“Hoodlum,” as a term for up-to-no-good criminal-minded men, first appeared in San Fransisco magazines from 1871 and spread quickly from there. Any relation to a particular language is disputed, although early “hoodlums” seemed inclined to terrorize recent Chinese immigrants.


Modern troubled city neighborhoods are sometimes called “ghettos,” but this term first specifically described segregated Jewish sections. Centuries before WWII, many European cities placed their Jewish populations in particular neighborhoods and subjected them to restrictions not endured by other citizens. The first may have been in Venice in 1516, where Jews lived on a small island in a part of the city known locally as “New Ghetto.” This practice of forced Jewish segregation had largely ended by the late 1800’s, but was revived by the Nazis with ghastly results.


“Ruffian” means a violent brute or criminal, but the original Italian meaning was closer to that of a pimp or panderer. Similarly, “bully” began with a less violent – and even affectionate – connotation.


The word “slum” as describing a poor urban area comes from 1820’s England, but has more than one plausible origin. Since industries were often built near waterways to take advantage of this pre-railroad transport route, the houses of the working poor which arose near the factories tended to be on swampy, poorly-drained land. “Slump” is a name for this marshy land, which was thought to turn to “slum.” Alternatively, the word “slum” also meant “room” in British slang but changed to mean “back room / alley,” especially full of poor people.

Hoskins, William George. 1977. The Making of the English Landscape. Repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton.