If the Inuit have many words for snow, do walkers have many words for walking? The language of perambulation is as diverse as our destinations. The English language words we use are fascinating, at least to me.
- Walk – the generic term, the workaday getting around, to and fro with some purpose. Workers walk, but the leisure class rambles, ambles, and strolls.
- Ramble – walking with purpose to get somewhere over through the countryside. One rambles through brambles perhaps but never through boroughs.
- Amble – relaxed walking, carefree, and without pretence. Not to be confused with strolling – one ambles on one’s own on a sunny day, whereas one strolls arm in arm on a summer evening
- Rove – walking as searching, looking for and looking at. Dogs rove with their noses, people rove with their eyes.
- Trot – a gait that’s almost walking, but not quite running, to cover ground quickly. Is trotting walking at all?
- Shamble – shambolic ambling, shuffling in a disorganized way. Drunks and hobos shamble.
- Stroll – relaxed friendly ambling, often with others, often after a meal, in congenial surroundings. In Italy there is La Passegiatta, in France La Promenade, the art of conscious see-and-be-seen stylish strolling.
- Stride – walking with a purpose, with conviction, with confidence. No one strides meekly.
- Meander – purposeless roving, ambling over distance to somewhere or other but you’re not quite sure and don’t really mind where you end up.
- Wander – similar to meandering though with an implication of being lost, this is walking to find one’s way, perhaps literally or perhaps metaphorically
- Glide – graceful striding to make an impression on others, over short distances. I defy anyone to glide more than a few meters.
- Slog – walking as toil, carrying baggage physical or metaphorical, always uphill regardless of the slope, always painful and slow.
- Trudge – heavy walking, through mud and slush and snow and sand with feet of lead and the destination always a few hundred meters further on. Trudges become slogs if they carry on.
- Galumph – wild heavy footed teenager in boots clumping up and down stairs and through hallways and along sidewalks, careless of others while immersed in a phone or in conversation with friends.
- Hike – the art of getting somewhere, walking purposefully and confidently to a destination. Lost hikers meander, tired ones trudge, happy ones stride early in the journey.
- Shuffle – meek and tired and resigned to one’s fate upon reaching one’s destination
- Skip – playful walking, carefree and light and breezy. Sometimes one skips metaphorically when striding with an upbeat mood and a smile, and sometimes one skips literally with rhythm and and a hop.
- Limp – painful walking that favours one foot or the other (or heaven forbid both), as at the end of a hike when the blisters have formed.
- Trek – hiking over long distances and over mixed or rough terrain.
Did you notice something about that list? Look at the words that designate purposefulness – walk, hike, trek, stride. By contrast, look at the words that have an aimlessness or casualness to them – amble, ramble, meander, shuffle.
The purposeful words are one syllable and have hard consonants – for example the percussive “k” sound in hike or trek, or the “t” sound in trudge. Their pronunciation lends itself to rhythm and beat – they march – and they are short words, economical of energy.
The words that lack that purposefulness, by contrast, have softer consonants – for example the “m” sound in ramble or amble or meander or the “f” sound in shuffle. They are less urgent, having multiple syllables, and take their time being pronounced.
Thus sub-consciously, when we use these words, we are reinforcing their meaning by the way we pronounce them, using short, percussive words for purposeful walking and longer, softer words when we are not in a hurry.
Interestingly, words such as glide or stroll or rove have both characteristics together, being one syllable yet containing soft consonants such as the “l” or “v” sounds. In meaning they indicate a more casual, studied purposefulness than words such as hike or trek.
Language is a road much travelled yet much ignored, used and abused by all of us each day, and filled with potholes and bumps like the streets we travel. And like the paths we choose to walk, the words we choose to describe our walks reveal our intentions and impressions in layers of meaning.