In defense of GUARD rails

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I arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1960 for a new job, a new life and, though I didn't know it at the time, a new language and culture.

A couple of weeks after I arrived, on Oct. 13 at 3:36 p.m. to be specific, the whole town went crazy. They streamed out into the streets, dancing and hugging one another and yelling about something or someone called "Maz," which I soon learned was the nickname of a guy who hit a ball with a stick. When strange young women came up and kissed me right on the streetcar tracks (the cars couldn't move because torn paper and confetti covered the tracks, preventing their motors from being electrically grounded), I thought, "Hey, it's gonna be fun living in Pittsburgh."

Well, it has been fun. I met my wife here and made it my home. But Pittsburghers are indeed a breed apart.

Reams of articles and books have been cranked out about Pittsburghese, with its dahntahn 'n at. But I don't begrudge that, because I grew up in Brooklyn during the heyday of the Dodgers, and it is rumored that we had a few speech idiosyncrasies of our own. Here in Pittsburgh, I learned quickly what a Buc and a Stiller were, but one Pittsburgh linguistic peculiarity has never ceased to baffle me.

According to a Post-Gazette story on Aug. 7 ("Resurfacing to Begin on Parkway West in Robinson"), a $945,000 road project is to include "guide rail improvements." I found that comforting, because if I should ever wander away from the center of my lane, all I'd have to do to straighten out is to stick my hand out the window, place it on the guide rail and slide it along. Just like the railing on a staircase.

I had never seen that brilliant safety measure. I have seen many guard rails, though.

Running to my computer, I found that "guide rail" appears to be the preferred term of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. One undated PennDOT reference even said it officially had been changed from "guard rail."

According to Wikipedia, "There is no legal distinction between them," and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration says "the terms guard rail and guide rail are synonymous and are used in different regions around the country."

Is it a mere tossup, then?

Not in my book. Blind people have guide dogs, and prisons have guard dogs. They are not the same. The verb to guide means to direct, conduct or lead, while to guard means to keep safe from harm. What harm? Typically, running off the highway or perhaps off a sheer drop at the edge of a mountain road. That's what guard rails can prevent.

I hereby urge PennDOT to hit reverse and officially eliminate all references to "guide rails" in favor of "guard rails." Write your state representatives! The march on Harrisburg begins Oct. 1!


Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Kept Under His Hat: Secrets of Science in the Kitchen."


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