Wrong side of the tracks

  • Wrong side of the tracks is an idiom that originated in the United States. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common saying wrong side of the tracks, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.


    The wrong side of the tracks is the impoverished or shoddy district in any town or city; the term is used as a metaphor to mean living without the advantages that more socially or economically stable people are accustomed to. For instance, someone who was born into an economically disadvantaged family may say that he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Someone who does not currently have economic or social advantages may say he lives on the wrong side of the tracks; this expression is sometimes literal, but is usually is figurative. The expression wrong side of the tracks is an image taken from the years when railroads were the most modern mode of transportation. Railroad tracks ran through towns and cities. The neighborhoods near or downwind of the railroad tracks bore the brunt of noise and soot from the locomotives. Consequently, the people who lived in these areas, on the wrong side of the tracks, were too poor to live anywhere else that was more pleasant. Ancient philosophers equated the right side of anything as the positive side and the left side of anything as the sinister or negative side. Though railroads were extremely important in the 1800s and the last spike that connected the American Transcontinental Railroad was driven in 1869 in Promontory, Utah, the expression wrong side of the tracks did not become popular until the 1920s. The phrase right side of the tracks, to mean someone who was born into or is living a life of good fortune, is sometimes seen but is not nearly as popular as the negative iteration of the term.



    Being born in either the right or the wrong side of the tracks, carrying these or the other genes in our chromosomes, or indeed taking this or the other turn on a seemingly unimportant day, will determine our future. (Psychology Today Magazine)

    For he and them it is a completion of a long journey to redemption – the boy from the wrong side of the tracks made good. (Daily Mail)

    He almost felt sorry for the preppies and kids from the right side of the tracks. (Coachella Valley Independent)

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