Misusing language is practically company policy on the tube. Staff may know what “severe delays” means, but there’s no way they’re telling the public
The underground has an incredible repertoire of stock phrases. More or less the entire history of the world can be boiled down and written on one of those whiteboards you see at the entrance to tube stations. Each one of these phrases, such as “passenger action” or “severe delays,” has—or at least is supposed to have—a fairly exact meaning. But the public tends to have completely the wrong idea about what that meaning is.
“Passenger action,” for example, is supposed to mean “someone has pulled the emergency cord” but it is pressed into service to describe more or less anything we want to deny responsibility for, including a suicide, which is actually “person under a train.” Suicides are also known as “person on the track” but that is supposed to be for when there is a person on the track—before they’ve been hit by the train.
The management occasionally gets sniffy about the use of lingo, vainly trying to bring some order to what has always been an inexact science. But misusing language is practically company policy. This is the organisation that used to start staff at the grade of SA, station assistant, before promoting them to the SS, station supervisor. More recently I was reading some underground publicity literature entitled “Access on the underground—a step by step guide for disabled passengers.”
My favourite underground phrase is VIP for a blind person. It stands for visually impaired person—do you see what they did there? Blind people will think that we think they’re VIPs! The regrettable truth is that hearing that a blind person is due to arrive at your station is a cue for staff to vanish. I used to have a Saturday afternoon regular blind person with extraordinarily sweaty palms. It was like being gripped by a mop. He would take me by the elbow and I would guide him upstairs to the station entrance and, if I didn’t stop him, all the way to his house. By the time we reached the escalators, his sweat would be soaking up and down my sleeve. I was prepared to put up with a lot in the name of customer service—you know me—but after a few weeks I noticed him looking around as we travelled upstairs and even moving out of the way of a dog. I waited and watched until I could take no more. Then I told him, “Oi, you little shit, you can see!” This did not go down at all well with my manager, who was at pains to inform me that if someone is registered blind, it doesn’t matter if they can see or not, you still have to go to collect them.
Drivers are no longer called drivers but train operators. As far as I can tell this change was brought about entirely so that managers can use the nifty abbreviation “Tops” instead of the onerous two-syllable “drivers.” Or perhaps it was as a sop to the drivers, who didn’t like the implication that their job consisted of doing something rather than sitting in the dark at the front of the train waiting to go home. When I first joined the company I heard about the drivers’ “mafia,” which sounded exciting. I was a bit suspicious, as the chance to join a mafia is not normally advertised on staff noticeboards. It transpired that the mafia is merely a way for drivers to swap their shifts.
Similarly cleaners are not officially cleaners but cleaning operatives. This is apparently because being called a “cleaner” is insulting. Not nearly as insulting, however, as the way some staff talk to their cleaners. One of the sadder sights I’ve witnessed is a supervisor, without an O-level to his name, berating a Ghanaian maths graduate for the quality of his mopwork. But the cleaners generally take it in good spirit and keep their heads down. In fact, the night cleaners keep their heads down a little too much and often have to be woken up at the end of their shifts.
The customers, of course, have their own words for everything. Over the years I’ve been asked for travelcards in the guise of runabouts, run-arounds, capital cards, day rovers and many other variations, although most popular is still “that card… you know.” I am also frequently asked for a “single return.”