Why Are Some Letters Missing From NYC Subways?

Getty Images
Getty Images

If you’ve ridden the New York City subway, you know that the different trains are often designated by letters of the alphabet (or numbers, but we’re not talking about those).

If you’ve ridden the New York City subway a lot, you know that some letters are missing. And it’s not the tail end of the alphabet, either. There’s an A, B and C train and there’s also a Z train. But there's no H train or Y train. There are several other skipped letters, too.

The explanation for the missing letters falls (mostly) into two categories.

Discontinued

H, K, T, V and W are all former trains that have been discontinued. In fact, an in-depth look at the history of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) reveals regular recycling of letters as trains go in and out of use. But let’s look at each of the current letters getting snubbed.

H

Technically, the H train is still in use. It is the internal name for the Rockaway Park shuttle in Queens that connects with the A train to provide service to the western edge of the peninsula. After a few years without any designation on the map, the shuttle became known as the HH train in 1962. Over the next several decades, it was known as the E and then the CC train. In the 1980s, the MTA did away with double letter designation and the shuttle earned its H name. Eventually, however, all shuttles started bearing the grey S designation on maps. Since this would create internal confusion, the MTA continues to call the Rockaway Park shuttle the H train for their own purposes.

H made a public resurgence as the name of a free shuttle that took over service for a suspended portion of the A train in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The letter was available as the storm had also knocked out service on the Rockaway Park Shuttle. When both the shuttle and the A train came back online by the summer of 2013, H slipped back into hiding.

K

The K train used to run on the same Eighth Avenue track that currently sports the A, C, E. It was the name given to the former AA train when the use of double letters was discontinued in 1985. The K train was essentially the opposite of the C. Both ran locally between 168th Street and the World Trade Center, but while C train service covered rush hours, the K took on midday, nights, and weekends. The K last ran on December 10, 1988; the next day, C train service was expanded to include all hours.

T

T (and TT) used to be the name of what is now known as the D train. It was absorbed by the B train in the 1960s, which was replaced by the W train and ultimately the D train in the early 2000s. If you miss the T train, never fear: It is the future name of the Second Avenue Subway, which is expected to open its first phase in December 2016.

V

Longtime New Yorkers may remember both the introduction and the dissolution of the short-lived V train. It debuted in December 2001 to replace a rerouted F train, traveling between the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Queens. Unfortunately, limited service patterns—the V only ran weekdays from approximately 6:30 a.m. to midnight—and budget cuts doomed the V train. In June 2010, it was merged with the M train and dropped the V designation.

W

Another short-lived, late-alphabet train, W debuted in 2001 to account for construction on the Manhattan Bridge tracks that disrupted the B train. During nearly nine years in use, its service area changed several times, going all the way to Coney Island to start, then eventually losing the Brooklyn borough altogether. In Manhattan, W traveled along the Broadway line that we now think of as the N, Q, R train, eventually getting absorbed into those lines in 2010 as a result of financial shortcomings.

Potential Confusion

The letters I and O were never used for trains because of their visual similarities to the numbers 0 and 1 and the use of both alphabetical and numerical designations in the New York Subway system.

U and Y were eliminated from consideration because they are homonyms with actual words—namely, “you” and “why.” Apparently, the founders of what is now the MTA did not find the potential for “Who’s on First”-style confusion to be nearly as humorous as Abbott and Costello did.

The Problem with P

That leaves all the letters accounted for except P. There are several stories of almost-P trains. It was the intended name for the final leg of the Culver service (now the F line) into Manhattan that was scrapped in favor of a shuttle (labeled S as all shuttles are) at the last minute. It was also the name given to a specialty train designed to work around the 1992 potential Amtrak strike. Congress intervened at the last moment and no such emergency service was necessary. The P then stood for the incapacitated Penn Station. However, neither of these instances explain why it was never used for any new trains between the creation of the Culver shuttle and the 1992 near-strike. And so it is fun, if not entirely likely, to consider the theory that the P homonym was simply too immature for polite commuter conversation.

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

iStock.com/dusipuffi
iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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