A Derailed Myth, or, a Story of the Word Tram
By Anatoly Liberman
The trick that once probably took everybody’s breath away or, to use a more modern phrase, wowed the whole world (very genteel) has by now acquired a rather threadbare look. I mean the art of giving punning titles to newspaper articles. For example, if a restaurant goes out of business and a liquor store replaces it, the newspaper will say: “Something Is Brewing Again.” Plumbers’ profits go down the drain, whereas chimneysweeps’ money, naturally, goes up in smoke. Fowlers croak. Coopers kick the bucket. Tenors join the Choir Invisible. How unbearably trite! The genre has outstayed its welcome, but journalists keep producing more and more paper tigers. To show how easy it is to engage in such lackluster punning, I gave my post a corresponding name. So back on track: to the story of tram.
A street car can also be called tramway or simply tram. At one time, trams used to dominate towns; now they are gone almost everywhere. A typical folk etymological tale has woven itself around the word tram, and, for a change, we seem to know its author. Allegedly, tram is the second syllable of Benjamin Outram’s family name. According to the OED, we owe the popularity of this fib to Samuel Smiles’s book Life of George Stephenson (see p. 59 of the 1857 edition; different pages in later reprints). Both Outram (1764-1805) and Stephenson (1781-1848) were distinguished civil engineers, and Smiles was an influential author regularly writing about engineers’ achievements. In Life of George Stephenson, he devoted a short paragraph to the origin of tram, but it did the harm anyway. He wrote: “In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, in Derbyshire, used stone props instead of timber for supporting the ends and joining of the rails. As this plan was pretty generally adopted, the roads became known as ‘Outram roads,’ and subsequently, for brevity’s sake, ‘tram-roads’.”
Even though Smiles could hardly have invented the Outram—tram story, no references to it prior to 1857 have been found. Here is a passage from the Stamford Mercury, September 6, 1861: “The father of Sir Jas. Outram was the founder of the Butterley Ironworks, now the largest ironworks in England. He was a man of great ability, energetic, self-reliant, of fertile and ready resources; so much so, that his opinion was deferred to by many of the most eminent engineers, such as Sir John Rennie and Thos. Telford. He was the first, in connection with these works, to lay down an iron way, and it is to this circumstance, and from his name, that we have the word ‘tramway’.” This passage was reproduced in Notes and Queries a few days later and set off a lively discussion. Many correspondents, also possessing fertile and ready resources (Rudyard Kipling, steeped in the idiom of his day, called one of his characters a man of great resource and sagacity), pointed out that this derivation of tram is wrong. Indeed, the word tram is much older than 1800, the date of Outram’s invention; besides, Outram has initial stress, so that no one can hear tram in it. I assume that some witty man noticed the similarity between Outram and tram, made a joke about it, and Smiles took it seriously.
The real, rather than folk, etymology of tram, first recorded in the middle of the 15th century, is more complicated, but some basic facts have been discovered. The word is, apparently, of northern descent. It was a local name for a special wagon; hence tramway “the road on which this wagon ran.” In coal-mining, a tram was a frame or truck for carrying coal baskets. The shaft of a barrow was also called a tram, and in the Scandinavian languages all kinds of things called tram, tromm, etc. are made of wood too. That is why Skeat suggested that the original “tramroad” was a log road. Low (= northern) German treme means a “doorstep” (thus, another object made of wood), and some other words beginning with tr-, such as German Treppe “doorstep” (perhaps allied to Engl. trap), may be “obscurely or distantly related” to tram. This is what etymologists say when faced with a mass of near synonyms looking similar but not similar enough to qualify as congeners.
Latin trabs “beam” seems to belong here too, but it can be akin to Treppe and its likes only if at one time they began with th (such is the rule: compare Latin tres versus Engl. three), but th changed to d in the continental Scandinavian languages and German, while in German d was often confused with t, so that in the Germanic group one has to look for thram, tram, and dram as possible cognates of tram, and this complicates matters. Trabs and trap end in b ~ p and may be of some interest in discussion of tram only if we are dealing not with real cognates but with sound imitative nouns and verbs of the tread and tramp type, in which almost any combination of vowels and consonants is able to reproduce some noise. In case all these tr- words in the Indo-European languages go back to the sound of a tool interacting with wood (to knocking on wood, as it were), an etymological family, or rather a foster home, emerges. Granting affinity to its inhabitants may take us too far. It is therefore safer to say that tram is a word of either northern German or Scandinavian provenance whose earliest meaning was “a wooden object” (with specifications). Shafts, beams, doorsteps, wagons, and logs will feel at ease in its company. When trams were put on iron sleepers, the old name remained. This is a usual case. Compare pen, originally “feather,” though no one has been using quills for more than a century and a half, and even fountain pens are now antiques.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”