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What Does "Jump the Track" Mean?

Jim B.
Jim B.

“Jump the track” is an English idiom used to refer to someone who is doing one thing and then suddenly decides to do something else. This switch generally comes without a warning and comes as a surprise to all those who witness this quick change. Such a change may come about with a bit of forethought by the person who manages it, or it can be the result of a lack of focus or direction. The phrase “jump the track” is used to evoke a train that has left the rails and is suddenly going off in another direction.

People often use idioms as a way of spicing up their conversations through the use of colorful and impactful phrases. Those who speak English recognize that idioms may have meanings that diverge greatly from the literal definitions of the words they contain. These phrases may even mean something different from the time when they were first originated. Instead, an idiom gains its meaning from the way it is used in the culture. One idiom that denotes a sudden shift in action is the expression “jump the track.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

This phrase is most commonly used when someone who was taking one course of action switches to another without any sort of lengthy transition period. Obviously, when someone behaves in this way, it tends to catch all of those in his or her presence a bit off guard. Nonetheless, such a change of action can be viewed with admiration if it is done successfully. As an example, consider the sentence, “I’m amazed he can jump the track like that and succeed in a job that’s the complete opposite of his last one.”

Of course, there are be some occasions when this phrase is not used to compliment someone’s ability to change on the fly. If someone suddenly shifts course with little rhyme or reason and with even less focus, this idiomatic expression may be used in a derogatory manner. For example, someone might say, “He managed to jump the track so many times in our conversation that my head was spinning by the time he left.”

As with many idioms, the phrase “jump the track” gets its meaning from a very specific situation. From that specific situation, which is a train that derails and thus changes direction, the phrase has evolved so that it may be used in a number of different situations. It is a versatile phrase that can be used any time that a person makes a sudden change.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books