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.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER