Daily Archives: April 17, 2011


One gets the impression that violent outbursts are rampant. Every time someone goes on a rampage, the news media ramp up their coverage and ram page after page of gory details into our faces. And we know what’s coming when we see the word rampage – in fact, we’ve usually been informed by a preceding adjective: shooting, murderous, deadly, killing, bloody

The word rampage itself carries a certain flavour that helps give the sense that something big is going on. To start with, it has two syllables but neither is unstressed – the first has more stress, but the second has a “long” vowel. So it’s like a one-two punch. It has this in common with outrage – this and the age too. Add to that the ramped-up amperage of rage and a certain savour of rant. Not to mention the fist-forcefulness of ram.

And it’s something you go on, too – think about some of the other things a person might go on besides a rampage: a tear, a bender, a spree… also a vacation and a walk, of course, but the point is that it denotes a departure from the normal course of things, with a subsequent return but not without consequences.

Is rampage related to rampant and ramp? Yes, in fact. They all trace back to a verb, ramp (Middle French ramper), meaning (among other things) “rear up on the hind legs”. In heraldry, if you see a lion or other critter rearing up (I think first of the logo of the Royal Bank of Canada), it is said to be rampant. It’s from this sense that we get our modern adjective rampant: from rearing up and climbing and so on, and rushing about and raging and such like (other meanings of ramp), we get “widespread and attacking”.

And it’s also from that verb that we get the noun ramp, as in that thing you drive up in the parking garage. That’s right – from the animal inclined upwards we get the thing inclined upwards. And again, from the verb – not the noun – we get rampage. Just add the age suffix that indicates some material manifestation of a thing: an outage due to insufficient wattage, for instance.

But normally that suffix is unstressed. Some cases (e.g., garage in North America) say it as in French (from which it comes), but usually it’s a reduced, unstressed vowel, followed of course by that voiced alveopalatal affricate. It’s only in rampage and outrage that it gets a full accented pronunciation. But, now, tell me: would this word be so forcefully effective if that second syllable were unstressed, as in that word better suited to what is left behind after – wreckage – or that possible spark of the initial spree – umbrage at postage (or, alas, misused language)?


The other day, I bumped into Maury in a clothing store in the mall. I almost didn’t recognize him; he was wearing black pants and a black shirt and a leather vest.

“Good grief, man,” I said, “have you been spending too much time with Frick and Frack?”

Maury swept his eyes over his own figure and said, “I know not what it shall signify…”

A tall, lean, stylish woman appeared from behind a clothing rack. “I am sprucing him up!” she declared, with what sounded like a German accent.

“James,” Maury said, “this is Lorelei.”

I shook her hand and tried, out of consideration for Maury, not to appear too obviously attracted to her. “How do you do.”

“I may be Lorelei, but I am not from the Rhine,” the goddess declared, smiling. “In fact, I was raised in East Berlin, and my mother was a child refugee from Königsberg. So I am Prussian.”

“Hence the spruce jerkin,” Maury explained, indicating his vest.

“You have said that already and I do not quite understand,” Lorelei said.

“The word spruce actually comes from French Prusse, for ‘Prussia,'” Maury said, “and a few different things imported from Prussia in medieval times came to be called spruce. Spruce fir, for one –”

“Oh, I do not wear fur,” said Lorelei.

“No,” said Maury, “F-I-R, the tree. Fichte. We call it spruce.”

“Oh!” Lorelei looked informed. “This is what I have decorated my apartment with! Only it is from Norway. Do continue!”

“Anyway, fine leather from Prussia was spruce leather, and in particular a jerkin – a sleeveless jacket – made from it was a spruce jerkin. And spruce jerkins were considered very smart looking indeed. Around the time of Shakespeare, spruce came to be an adjective meaning ‘stylish, trim, neat, dapper, smart.’ From which we get the verb spruce, with or without up.”

“So indeed I am sprucing you up!” Lorelei declared. “Only you are already smart. Now I am making you neat and stylish and dapper.” She scanned his not-really-thin figure. “Trim will come.” She smiled again. “Now, I have found you a tie. Come!” She gestured and began to walk away.

As Maury began to move away, I said, “Do you like your new look?”

He leaned close and said confidentially, “I feel like a jerk in it.” Then he straightened up. “But it’s all for a good cause.”

“Or a good effect,” I said, as he trotted off after Lorelei, who shouted back, “Oh, nice to meet you, James.”

The next day, I saw him at the Domus Logogustationis. He looked a bit the worse for the wear. “I must say, you look a little blue,” I said.

“In more ways than one,” he replied. “We went to a gallery party and they were serving International Klein Blue cocktails, which are made with Prussian blue. It retains its colour as it passes through – you may be seeing a bit of it in my skin hue, perhaps.”

“I don’t think that accounts for your overall mien,” I said. “I’m not sure any blue on you might not be a bruise.”

“I think it is,” he said, touching his upper back and wincing. “Well, after the party, she showed me her place.”

“Was it good?” I asked. “Norwegian wood?”

“It was really spruce,” he said. “She’s quite the conversationalist. Did you know Königsberg is a link between Leonhard Euler and the Eagles?”

I paused for a moment. The lightbulb went on. “‘Seven Bridges Road,'” I said.

“Not the only topological problem of the evening,” he said. “We talked until two.”

“She seems quite engaging,” I said. “And then?”

“And then she said, ‘It’s time for bed.'” He sighed. “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh. I told her I didn’t, and crawled off to sleep in the bath.”

“Hence the bruise,” I said.

“No,” he said. “She turned out to be teasing me. She dragged me back and introduced me to her birch.”