Creepin’ & Crawlin’

Posted May 19th, 2010 by Anthony

After reading the review of a cutting-edge San Francisco restaurant I was wondering about the meaning of “ramp.” I went to the dictionary on my computer. (I’m using the latest Macintosh operating system which has the pretty decent New Oxford American
Dictionary. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a listing for ramp the food, but there was for “a slope or inclined plane for joining two different levels…”

Ta da! The example for the inclined plane was “a wheelchair ramp.” What a surprise. It’s like seeing a disability story on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. I think it’s a pretty good indication of our influence over the past 35 years. The way I read it, the dictionary assumes that everyone will know what a “wheelchair ramp” is. There’s something enormously satisfying to see the validation by a reputable dictionary.

One of the things I like about Oxford dictionaries is the etymology. According to the American, ramp comes from the Old French word “ramper” meaning to creep or crawl. What? This is getting interesting. We get wheelchairs, stop crawling, pass laws requiring ramps, but have a connected to our former state.

OK, this is getting serious. According to this dictionary “cripple” come from the Old English words crypel and crēopel, which are both of Germanic origin and related to creep. I find this coincidence surprising—I’ll leave it to the hard core word people to sort this out.
Under the listing for cripple the Oxford Dictionary has advice for the use of the word. This, more than the ramp example, shows how far we’ve come.

USAGE The word cripple has long been in use to refer to ‘a person unable to walk due to illness or disability’ and is recorded as early as ad 950. In the 20th century, the term acquired offensive connotations and has now been largely replaced by broader terms such as ‘disabled person.’

That’s amazing. The newspaper style books have been saying the same things for years, but I’ve never seen a mainstream, public warning that’s this explicit. I’m encouraged.

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