untrammelled

The United States’ Wilderness Act of 1964 seems to have been a great vector for this word, as it contains this statement, rather less dry than most legislation:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

A visitor who does not remain? Ah, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

Wait, though. If you’ve left footprints, haven’t you trammeled it? (Or, in the non-American spelling, trammelled it?)

Nope. You’ve trampled it, maybe. Perhaps even pummelled it a bit. If you were in a national park you might have taken a tram, but a federally designated wilderness in the US has none of those – not even roads (nor are motorized vehicles permitted). But as long as you have not bound it to your will, fettered it, constrained it, entrapped it, you have not trammelled it. It remains wild, untrammelled, though perhaps not untroubled. Immaculate? Hard to conceive in nature. Virgin? Perhaps. But not necessarily.

Now, if your encounter with untrammelled has not been in the context of wilderness or the collocation untrammelled by man, you may well have seen it first in untrammelled sovereign or untrammelled sovereignty. That would have given you at least a slightly different sense of it. It’s easy to picture wilderness being trampled, but sovereigns and sovereignty? Perhaps, but not so much.

What does untrammelled come from? It means (the dictionary will tell you) ‘not caught in a trammel’ or ‘not impeded by a trammel’. And what is a trammel? Broadly, it is fetters or hobbles or something that catches or snares you. Originally it’s a kind of fishing net made of three layers of mesh, the two on the outside being loose and the one in the middle being fine; the fish comes through a big mesh, runs into the small one, pushes it through a hole in the other big mesh, and is caught. So it traces back to Latin tri ‘three’ and macula ‘mesh’. Does that macula look familiar? The same word in Latin also meant ‘spot’ or ‘blemish’. We get immaculate from it.

But remember that something that is untrammelled may yet not be immaculate (spotless). It simply needs to be free. Unfettered. Not netted.

Unlike this word. This word is hobbled by its strong resemblance to untrampled and its echoes of words such as pummel and hammer and perhaps troubled. They hold it back. They walk all over it. They trammel it.

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