Pullman

This might be the least Italian-looking and -sounding work you’re likely to come across. I first heard it quite a few years ago. Some Italian students I was teaching were using it while speaking to each other. Intrigued, I asked them what it meant, and they told me that it meant coach, as in a comfortable bus for long journeys. Unable to resist finding out why such an unassuming English surname would be the Italian word for coach, I investigated.

As some of you may have already guessed, the name comes from George Pullman. His company developed the Pullman sleeping car for railways in the 19th century. They became particularly popular after the body of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln was transported from Washington D.C to Springfield Illnois. Despite Pullman’s death in 1897, the Pullman Company continued to operate their sleeping cars with a reputation for excellent service until 1968. The story of Pullman is an interesting one. His company was the largest employer of African Americans after the American Civil War, as he felt that former house slaves had had the proper training to provide the high level of personalised service he wanted from his “Pullman Porters.” He built a company town south of Chicago comprised of 1300 newly-built structures, which he ruled like a dictator, banning independent newspapers and town meetings. In 1894 his workers went on strike after wages were lowered and hours increased. By the time the strike ended, 34 people had been killed, and Pullman’s reputation tarnished.

In Europe, electric tramcars were often referred to as Pullman coaches, because they were considered to be more comfortable than their predecessors. This association of the name with luxury and comfort is why it came to be used to refer to comfortable coaches for travelling around Europe in Italian (and also Greek).

I’m always curious about situations like this where words don’t seem to belong, especially when it’s an English word in another language, as the stories of how they got there are usually interesting.

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