Daily Archives: April 6, 2011


We were seated at a table – Jess Long, Edgar Frick, Marilyn Frack, and I – at the Order of Logogustation’s monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event. For atmosphere, the lights were dim and the tables were lit with candles.

“This candle’s waning,” observed Edgar.

Marilyn reached over and tilted it a bit. “I think it’s waxing.”

“Like your legs?”

Marilyn set the candle back down. “Are you saying my legs are getting fat?”

“No, no,” Edgar protested. “I mean like you wax your legs.”

“I’ll wax your bum,” Marilyn said, reaching over and giving his leather-clad posterior a whack.

“An interesting and still open question,” Jess said, to divert the conversation, “the matter of whether the verb wax meaning ‘grow’ is at the root of the noun wax. Is it that it is what bees grow, or does that come from another root, meaning ‘weave’?”

“Beats me,” said Marilyn. “I’ve generally minded my own beeswax.”

“Your own bikini wax,” Edgar said.

“Your own Johnson wax,” Marilyn shot back.

“I think,” I interjected, “uh, we’re waxing a bit vulgar here.”

“Why, Johnson wax is floor wax, dear boy,” Edgar said.

“And probably ceiling wax, too,” Marilyn added.

“Fit for ships, and shoes, and cabbages, and kings?” Jess said, with a little smirk.

“You’re getting Carrolled away,” I said.

“I was just trying another angle,” Jess replied.

“Well, wax is a rather angular word,” I said. “In all caps, it’s almost entirely diagonals.”

“Perhaps fitting,” Jess said, “given the way it involves front-and-back coarticulations: the /w/ with the lips rounded and the back of the tongue raised, and then the /ks/ releasing at the back while the tip of the tongue holds in place.”

“More phonemes than graphemes,” I observed.

Marilyn didn’t like the dry turn the conversation was taking. “Front-and-back coarticulations… that sounds like fun,” she purred to Edgar.

“Well, these two sods are about as lively as a wax museum,” Edgar said.

“I think so,” Marilyn said, “I’m talking hot wax, and these drips are writing a wax paper. They don’t know beans about the real wax.”

I said, “Well, I didn’t come here to have a strip peeled off me.”

“Oh,” said Jess, “that’s a whole other ball of wax.” She started whistling “Brazil.”

“Now, that’s waxing lyrical,” Edgar said.

“Or lyrical waxing,” Marilyn added.

“Wax on, you two,” I said.

“Oh,” said Marilyn, “we burn the candle at both ends. I needn’t tell you what Edgar does with a smoldering wick.”

“Wax off,” Jess replied drily, and high-fived me.


Picture yourself out for a stroll when you perceive a posse of perambulators, strollers trolling past the lamps on the boardwalk – or perhaps rolling down the ramp from a tram or some boat. The matrons pushing them have perms, and have perhaps lately sampled some SPAM parmigiana; the pram passengers are pampered and Pamper-ed and probably talcum powdered. And then something happens rather beyond the usual pram parameters: the permed moms begin to ram prams one against another: “Pram! Pram!” is the sound as the metal rattles when the prams jam. Now, what could be the pragmatic of such a perturbation of perambulation, this heavy metal thunder forcing the newborn to be wild?

And where would this be happening? Well, England, probably; that’s where they have prams – in North America we’re more likely to call them baby buggies, baby carriages, or – less semantically isomorphically – strollers. You might see prams parading in Hyde Park, near Albert Hall, where they perform the Proms and Brahms. The word is a demotic English truncation, a bit like telly for television or – more American and more recent still – blog for web log. What is pram short for? Perambulator. Does that sound like some discombobulator, some rather Victorian machine?

Well, the perambulator is a Victorian machine, really; its name comes from when such impressive-sounding locutions were in fashion: in 1853, Burton’s Registered Infant Perambulator was the latest thing for taking infants out for air. Perambulation, as you may know, is “walking around” – from a Latin root formed from per, meaning “throughout”, and ambulare, meaning “walk” (whence also ambulance, a thing that no longer walks). There is also a device used by surveyors – a wheel one walks about with to measure distances – called a perambulator.

Of course, baby carriages had been in existence for several decades by the time perambulator was applied to them. But the term caught on. And then got trimmed down in that way we do (I’m put in mind of vacay, for instance). The first citation for pram in the OED is from 1884. Unless, that is, you count the entirely unrelated word pram referring to a kind of flat-bottomed boat, which comes from Dutch praam.

And how do you like saying it? It seems so pretty and prim, but that’s probably association. The shape of the word bears no particular resemblance to its object, but they seldom do; you could, I suppose, see the blouse of the mother in p and her hand on the pram handle in m. The mouth, saying pram, makes a transit from lips closed to lips closed, like mum, but it can be open for as long as you wish. If it weren’t for the /r/, it could be one of baby’s first words. But if you hear /pam/ from baby, you’ll probably take it as a request for mummy, or perhaps for some SPAM.