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Go off the rails

  • Go off the rails is an idiom that has been in use for over one hundred years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, close but no cigar, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the meaning of the expression go off the rails, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.


     

    To go off the rails means to behave in an abnormal way, to act in an insane manner or highly unpredictable or illogical manner. When applied to a situation or institution, the idiom go off the rails may mean that things have gotten out of control or have careened into unexpected or unmanageable territory. The phrase go off the rails has been in use since the mid-1800s and is a reference to a train derailment. When a train goes off the rails it is no longer progressing along its preordained track and is uncontrollable and chaotic. Today, the mental picture conjured by the idiom go off the rails is most probably of a roller coaster car leaving its track. The first commercial roller coaster was installed at Coney Island, New York, in the 1880s. The idiom go off the rails predates that. Related phrases are goes off the rails, went off the rails, going off the rails.

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    Example

    The residents of Hollyoaks gather for the funeral of tragic teen Lily McQueen, who lost her life earlier this month when she died from sepsis as a result of wounds from her self-harming addiction, and it appears no one is struggling with the loss more than her husband Prince McQueen (Malique Thompson-Dwyer) who starts to go off the rails as he’s gripped by grief. (The Radio Times)

    “Let me just say, I’m very, very dismayed and disappointed that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails yesterday and today,” Pelosi told reporters at a news conference in Virginia. (The Jerusalem Post)

    As we start to chat, the members of the vivacious vocal trio Diva Station warn me that our conversation about their first major concert, with the subtitle Songs Through the Ages might go off the rails.  (The Chronicle Herald)


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