Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?
Comparisons are apt. Majorities are vast. Experiences are harrowing. Situations are hairy. Competition is stiff. Coffee is strong. Linguists describe this habitual juxtaposition or co-occurence of words as “collocation.” In her indictment of FIFA officials last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch used one example in describing the organization’s corruption as “rampant.”
Why do we describe corruption as “rampant”? I searched Google Books and came across an early example of the phrase in John Brown Patterson’s 1828 On the National Character of Athenians and the Causes of those Peculiarities by which it was Distinguished, an essay commissioned for a prize of 100 guineas by the University of Edinburgh to students there:
The national constitution having unfortunately, in great measure, taken for granted the virtue of its administrators, no check was found in the law to the rampant corruption.
The next citation I could find is in an 1836 Edinburgh publication of The Scottish Christian Herald and then in an 1847 London publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine. Historically, we should recall, corruption frequently characterized moral depravity. And rampant–well, let’s have a look at the history of this word.
Today, rampant primarily refers to something spreading “unchecked.” Coming into English from the French, the word first appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1300, when it frequently collocated with a very different noun: lion, as in “a lion rampant.” (Why does the adjective follow the noun? French generally places its modifiers after the noun. Linguistically, we call this a “postnominal adjective.” This is why we say, well, attorney general, due especially to the influence of Law French on English.)
Rampant originally described animals, particularly lions, “rearing or standing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). The term was especially used in heraldry, as in a lion depicted in rampant attitude on a crest:
A rampant posture was, unsurprisingly, a “ferocious” one. Thus, by the early to mid 1500s, rampant was describing something “fierce” and “in high spirits,” as in a rampant horse (OED). This was then likened to the phenomenon of something “running rampant,” like corruption, today.
The French rampant is formed from the verb ramper, “to climb” or “crawl,” which English eventually elevated into, say, a highway ramp or to ramp something up, among many other usages based on the verb ramp. Rampage, first appearing verbally as rampaging in Scottish dialect as well as the wonderful adjective rampageous, may also be formed on ramp.
The French ramper may derive from the Frankish *hrampon, according to Baumgartner and Ménard. Frankish was a Germanic language, and some etymologists ground this *hrampon in the same Proto-Germanic root that gives English the very un-ferocious rumple and rimple: *hrimp- or *hrump-. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *hrimp- is reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kerb-, “to turn” or “bend,” perhaps also responsible for scorch, shrimp, and scrimp, and maybe even the Welsh cromlech.
So, what it so rampant about a rumple? Well, Ernest Klein glosses the Frankish *hrampon as “to contract oneself convulsively.” Climbing and crawling, I suppose we can visualize, involve bodily contortions. Ramper‘s early usages in French may be instructive, as the verb was used of those wriggly reptiles, as well as of quadrupeds more generally, explaining the rearing of “rearing up.”
In FIFA’s case, then, we might understand rampant corruption as very rumpled white collar crime.