April 15, 2015

Dirty Etymology: Tramp

I never plan ahead. The words I choose for these dirty etymologies simply make themselves known, falling into my lap, licking at my boots. I tripped over "tramp" enough times this week to become curious. Where did the term "tramp" come from?

Apparently, the verb dates to late Middle English. I didn't know that was a time. So hold on while I look that up. Aha. Middle English encompasses the dialects of the English Language after the Norman conquest up until the late 15th century. The Late Middle English period ended about 1470. Sadly, little survives from Middle English literature. (It was popular to write in French at the time, rather than English. All the cool kids were doing it.)

Although you might have thought otherwise, Shakespeare did not write in Middle English, he wrote in Early Modern English. There's a difference.

But wait. What about tramps?

The verb (late 14 century) means to "walk heavily, stamp." The noun is from the mid-17th century. Originally the noun referred to "a person who wanders about, idle vagrant, vagabond."

So in "The Lady and the Tramp," the tramp would be a vagrant.

A use in the 1880s was a "steamship which takes cargo wherever it can be traded" (instead of from a regular line). I think we're getting somewhere now. Ships are often referred to as "she" right?

According to one source, the first use of "tramps" as a pejorative noun was in 1872 in the Eighth Annual Report of the Board of State Charities of Massachusetts.

The film "The Tramp" was made in 1915—directed by (and starring) Charlie Chaplin.

One source says "promiscuous woman" was first used in 1922. Which seems pretty specific to me. I found a source that said female tramps were often thought of as prostitutes. (Insert that steamship definition about now.)

The Lady is a Tramp is a Rogers and Hart song (1937).

I found a comment saying: "A tramp is a man who moves from town to town. A tramp is a woman who moves from man to man." And: "A woman lies around and sleeps. A tramp sleeps around and lies."

As an insult to woman, it's apparently an American thing. I bet you didn't know this, but "tramp" falls one word above "trampoline" in the dictionary. "Trample" is in between.

I found a book called The Poorhouses of Massachusetts which features a chapter called "The Tramp Menace." But this term is about drifters.

I will admit failure here. I haven't found a first use of "tramp" as a promiscuous woman. I did slip into a study from 2013 that says men are more likely to approach women with tattoos. This study was used to give weight to the term "tramp stamp." The study stated men believed a woman with a tattoo to be more sexually promiscuous.

Oh, but wait. I forgot Supertramp! The band originally was called Daddy before renaming themselves in 1970. I thought you'd like to know that.

If you have any more info on the term to share, please feel free. And check out my other (more successful) forays into the word of dirty etymology:

Pardon my French


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