pram

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.

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