What’s one thing that almost every one of us have in common? The ability to walk, wander, and be bipedal; we are a species that has, historically, spent most of our time on our feet.
In my Walk + Talk adventures in San Francisco this past year, I’ve been reading literature on the importance of walking and ambulation. Geoff Nicholson’s “The Lost Art of Walking,” devotes an entire section simply to the number of words we have in our language for walking. (Before you read further: how many words do you think there are for getting out and about on our two feet?)
Words for Walking, by Geoff Nicholson
“The word walking looks and sounds like a simple, honest, straightforward one, and in some ways it is. The dictionary tells us it has its origin in late Middle English, and therefore doesn’t need a Greek or Latin precursor. Latin terms such as ambulare or pedibus ire seem needlessly fancy; the classical Greek peripateo, stoicheo, or erchomai are just downright unfamiliar.
Yet perhaps that very simplicity in English is why we need so many qualifiers, so many synonyms, or not quite synonyms, for walking, each word with its own shade and delineation of meaning. I found It revealing to see which of these words applied to my own walking and which didn’t. Tell me how you walk and I’ll tell you who you are.
For example, I’ve performed all the slack, idle, casual, purposeless forms of walking. I’ve strolled and wandered, pottered and tottered, dawdled and shuffled, mooched and sauntered and meandered.
I’ve certainly ambled, and I could be said to have rambled (although the British Rambler’s Association is made up of hale, outdoorsy hearties who would probably spit on my walking efforts and dismiss them as trifling), and probably I’ve also shambled, but I don’t think I’ve ever gamboled.
I’ve definitely hiked, or at least I’ve definitely been on paths that call themselves hiking trails, but hiking conjures up a degree of seriousness, organization, and specialized clothing that I never quite trust. One of the minor but profound satisfactions of being on a grand, well-known hiking trail is to swan along in shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt, and to encounter others who are dressed as thought for an assault on Annapurna. By the same token I’ve also trekked.
I’ve trudged, tramped, and slogged, and in New York I’ve certainly schlepped. As I say, I’ve never marched in any military or quasi-military sense. Incidentally, the phrase, “Bolivian marching powder” as euphemism for cocaine, much popularized by the literary firm of McInerney and Ellis in the 1980s, turns out to have a much earlier origin. In the First World War, British soldiers were given cocaine-based tablets, known as ‘”forced march tablets,” though I’d have to say all marching is forced; the soldiers wouldn’t be doing it if they hadn’t been ordered to.
At the time of the Falklands War, the people of England heard a lot about British soldiers “yomping” to Port Stanley. It’s unwise for a vicilian to offer a hard-and-fast opinion on army slang, but I believe yomping involves crossing rough terrain carrying a full pack, and is similar to, but significantly different from, “tabbing.” Marines yomp; paratroopers tab, which according to some sources stands for “tactical advance to battle.” Tabbing is about speed; yomping is about distance. Unless you’ve been a British Soldier, it would be unwise to claim to have done either.
A couple of times when suffering from tendonitis or bursitis, I’ve limped and hobbled. I’ve waded, which is walking in, though not on, water. I’ve occasionally, metaphorically, walked on air, and I have probably, again not literally, sometimes walked a tightrope and walked on eggshells. Apparently when I was a child I sleepwalked a few times, but I have no memory of it. When I was a would-be playwright we did walk-throughs of my plays. Occasionally I’ve been giving my walking papers. I have never, Byronically, walked in beauty like the night.
I have certainly drifted. However, that’s a word that contains one highly specialized meaning, coming from the French founders and followers of psychogeography, who speak of the derive, which translates as drift, both noun and verb…”
And you? What kind of walker are you? And how often do you go for a walk?
(*Answer: I think there’s almost a hundred, at least by Nicholson’s accounting).