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Sep 2, 2022
This week’s theme
Metaphors & idioms

This week’s words
rose-colored
Taj Mahal
hotheaded
chicken feed
third rail

third rail
Third rail, Finhaut, Switzerland
Photo: NAC / Wikimedia

third rail
Bay Area Rapid Transit, California

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A.Word.A.Day
with Anu Garg

third rail

PRONUNCIATION:
(thurd rayl)

MEANING:
noun:
1. A topic believed to be too controversial or charged to discuss.
2. A rail that runs near a railroad track to supply high-voltage power to an electric train.

ETYMOLOGY:
From third, from transposition of Old English thridda + rail, from Old French raille. Earliest documented use: 1903 (figurative), 1867 (literal).

NOTES:
The federal social safety net in the US is called Social Security. People contribute to the program via payroll taxes. Then, when they need help, for example, at retirement, unemployment, disability, etc., they receive monthly payments. It’s an insurance fund that people have contributed to and they justifiably expect it to pay when needed. From time to time some foolhardy politician contemplates cutting the benefits only to realize that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. You just don’t touch it, unless you yourself want to be retired from your political career.
Below are the examples of third rails of politics in some other countries. But this may just be one opinion. What, in your opinion, are the third rails in your country’s politics? Beyond politics, what are some third rails in your personal life or of those around you? Share below or email us at words@wordsmith.org. Include your location (city, state).

USAGE:
“For more than 20 years borders have been the third rail of Australian politics, and on Thursday -- Anthony Albanese -- unwittingly, he says -- tripped over it.”
The Daily Telegraph (Australia); 2022.

“The abortion issue was already a third rail of Canadian politics before the latest US developments.”
Toronto Star (Canada); 2022.

“Mr. Macron took on the third rail of French politics -- reforming the country’s byzantine pension system.”
The Wall Street Journal (New York); 2022.

“German politicians are also openly considering nuclear energy, a third rail of German politics for decades.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania); 2022.

“Labour reform was the infamous third rail of Indian politics, to be touched by foolhardy politicians.”
The Economic Times (New Delhi, India); 2020.

“[Shinzo Abe] mused publicly about whether Japan should host US nuclear weapons, touching the third rail of Japanese politics.”
The Australian (Canberra); 2022.

“The fate of that [oligarchs’] wealth is the third rail of Russian politics.”
The Christian Science Monitor (Boston); 2003.

“[Rent control is] the third rail of Swedish politics.”
The New York Times; 2019.

“Gender equality, however, will remain the third rail of Saudi politics.”
The American Prospect (Princeton, New Jersey); 2007.

“And [Elizabeth Ames] said the NHS was a sacred cow. ‘It’s the third rail of UK politics.’”
The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia); 2019.

Meanwhile in Florida...

“They call Disney the third rail of politics in Florida.”
The Washington Post; 2022.

See more usage examples of third rail in Vocabulary.com’s dictionary.

A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
There are conditions of blindness so voluntary that they become complicity. -Paul Bourget, novelist (2 Sep 1852-1935)

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