Visual: A not-too-long word with a lot of curves and a few straight lines. The ol looks a bit like the b mirrored in a ripply lake, or vice versa. Depending on type face, there may or may not also be some echoes of shape between the g and the a.

In the mouth: Not a crisp word, nor an especially fluid one – aside from the ending liquid /l/. It’s more of a leaping or capering word: in saying /gæmbəl/ you start at the back of your mouth and immediately bounce off the front, landing at last on the tip of the tongue and holding. The voiced stops and nasal give it a padded, perhaps gummy feel, though that is of course affected or overshadowed by the sense of the word.

Etymology: From the French gambade ‘leap, spring’, which comes from Italian gambata, from gamba, leg. There was probably some confusion between the ade ending and an auld ending leading to the current English form. It is not apparently related to gamble, though there may have been some cross-influence.

Collocations: Gambol is not a word that has specific travelling companions (no, not even take a gambol), though it is known to be used more with children and animals than with adults. It is also not a feature of many quotations, though Hamlet does use it in an odd way, to mean something more like ‘leap’ or ‘flee’: “Bring me to the test, And I the matter will re-word, which madness Would gambol from.” Elsewhere (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice) Shakespeare uses it in the more expected sense.

Overtones: The resemblance to gamble is unmistakeable and the possible cause of mistakes. This makes gambol a better word for writing than for saying, and when saying it one may overpronounce the second syllable for clarity. This word also has tastes of gumbo, gable, amble, and the whole family of mble words, such as crumble, tumble, humble, resemble, grumble, et cetera, plus symbol.

Semantics: Leap, spring, cut a caper – in dance, in sport, or wherever. Both noun and verb gambol exist.

Serve with: This word shows up here and there in places where you will think, “Hmm, that’s a word I don’t see all that often but that seems to take a nice bounding turn on the page.” It’s a high-toned way to speak of frolicsome movement, and it reinforces a literati in-group because it’s the sort of word that will likely be taken by “those who don’t know better” to refer to something else (specifically betting). Using it has the same kind of effect as a subtle name-drop: “While I was talking to Chomsky after his lecture, there were dogs gamboling in the park beyond the window.” You might say, thus, that it is a stylistic gambol – and a stylistic gamble.

2 responses to “gambol

  1. Also, think of the meaning similarities behind the two words. Gambol, as you mentioned, means to leap, and Gamble, means to take a ‘leap of faith’, in a sense, much like the leap in Gambol. They both have connotations of randomness and uncertainty and it’s likely that one was derived from the other a long time ago.

  2. Love this blog, by the way.

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