We Haven’t Run Out of Steam Yet

The steam age is very much with us these days, notably via Steampunk: a sort of alternative history world view that combines Victorian costumes and settings with technology as it might have looked and functioned if modern inventions had been developed in the 19th century instead of later.

Fairly well known examples include the French film The City of Lost Children and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (don’t bother with the awful movie—see the original graphic novels by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill).

Many Steampunk fans make and wear elaborate costumes, and I recently saw an article about a couple who remodeled their house in steampunk style.

When we were in France recently I was delighted to discover that not only have works by Jules Verne been turned into graphic novels, there are many Verne-influenced steampunk books like the extraordinarily beautiful Le Voyage extraordinaire trilogy written by Denis-Pierre Filippi and drawn by Silvio Camboni. Amazon.fr says they are not available for shipping to the US, but it seems you can get them from Amazon.co.uk. Like many of Verne’s characters,  the protagonists are from England, birthplace of the industrial revolution.

Then of course there are the people who worry about their “low self-steam.”

But another way in which steam drifts around the contemporary world is in the vocabulary we use to label certain machines. We still tend to call big excavation rigs “steam shovels” even though they were replaced in the 1930s by diesel-powered scoopers. A number of modern names have been developed by those who make and use these items, but to the general public, they’re still “steam shovels.”

Steam rollers have had an even more robust afterlife. Although the generic term is “road roller,” that term is rarely used in the culture at large. Today’s children are introduced to steam rollers as characters in the worlds of Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder.

An interesting discussion of these steam age-derived terms took place back in 2004 on the Straight Dope Web site.

The one-word spellings “steamshovel” and “steamroller” are also common.

The figurative meaning of the verb “steamroll” has also helped keep “steamroller” alive. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “steamrolled” in a metaphorical sense dates from 1915. It most commonly occurs in writing about sports and politics to mean “defeated.”

Here are a couple of recent examples from The New York Times:

Betfair has established Minella as a 90-1 underdog, but that seems charitable considering the way Serena has steamrolled the women's field 
He was re-elected in 2005 and ran for governor in 2006, getting steamrolled by Eliot Spitzer. 

Other miscellaneous uses in the Times:

In this example “steamrolled” seems to mean “pushed aside” rather than “flattened”:

This sends a message to all the oil and gas drillers anxiously eyeing our borders: The people of New York will not be steamrolled

Another example describing pressing forcibly forward:

And beginning in the late 1990s, first Sony, then Microsoft steamrolled into the gaming market with new consoles

Here it seems to mean “taken over”:

The adrenal mass was an incidental finding, after all, but it had completely steamrolled our visit.

“Steamrolled” is with us for good, it seems. Like the verbs “dial” and “tape,” there just isn’t a widely accepted modern equivalent.

There's no reason to get all steamed up about it.


MWDIX said...

About the word--- Yet.
Many times the word yet can be left out, such as in the title of this article.---Save words and ink.---What do you think?

Temmu said...

And the non sequitur award of the day goes to... MWDIX! Congratulations!