Posted by Lewis on October 24, 2003
In Reply to: Asleep at the wheel posted by ESC on October 24, 2003
: : : : : : Hi! My mom thinks this comes from the old railroad days. Is she right? Can you please tell me the meaning and origin? Thank you. Sax
: : : : : I think mom is right. I've usually heard it as "asleep at the switches." It describes someone who invites disaster by failing to pay attention on the job. An engineer who fell asleep instead of tending to the switches (controls) in the cab of a train would cause a wreck.
: : : : From MW Online:
: : : : "switch: 4 a : a device made usually of two movable rails and necessary connections and designed to turn a locomotive or train from one track to another."
: : : : It's the switchman ("one who attends a switch (as in a railroad yard)") who's asleep.
: : : : I've never heard 'switches' plural for this.
: : : Use your browser's "find" function on the link below to see many variations of switch.
: : I've never heard "switches" either. Regional?
: I've never heard "switches" (Kentucky/W.Va.) Actually, I heard "asleep at the wheel" more often.
The guy in the signal box would have been responsible for more than one switch, so no reason why peple shouldn't say 'asleep at the switches' - certainly the consequences would be disastrous. As newspapers pre-date railways, somebody should be able to find the early usage.