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)?