by Evan Edwards
The following is part of a project I'm working on that traces out the history of various words for human locomotion. My hope is that by understanding the uniqueness of each of these words, I can gain a deeper appreciation for walking. The entry (and following entries as well) begins with passages from literature that use some synonym for walking, then gives basic etymological information, as well as a preliminary definition of the word. The last and largest part of the post is an essay that goes deeper into both the history and semantics of the word to make a case for its beauty and power in describing the ways that humans move.
And that's why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly imagine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy,
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.
– Pablo Neruda, El Viento
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks.
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymphs
– William Shakespeare, Richard the Third, Act I, Scene I
Let me have my way, Madame. The post of Justice of the Peace is an ambling pad for M. Vitel; for me it shall be a war-horse.
– Honore de Balzac, Le Cousin Pons
Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.
– Susan B. Anthony
Early 14th century, Late Middle English, from Old French ambler, ultimately from the Latin ambulare, cognate with Greek ἀλύω. Pronunciation – æmbəl
Originally applied exclusively to horses and persons riding horses. In the late 16th century, it came to be applied to people moving like a slow-moving horse. When applied to horses, it refers to a speed slightly faster than walking, and slower than galloping. In modern English, when applied to human locomotion, it signifies going at a slow, leisurely pace.
Somewhere in the British Isles, in the ninth century, horses started walking very strangely. For the thousands of years that humans had spent living alongside them, horses had almost exclusively walked in just one way; that is, with one particular “gait.” A traditional horse gait occurs when pairs of diagonal hooves move in tandem such that at some point, all hooves are off the ground at once. Traditionally gaited horses would also “walk” with a foot on the ground at all times, but this was slow going for the horse and rider. This way of moving, with which humans had been acquainted for millennia, is due to the connections in horse ligaments that restrict liberty in their muscular legs. This arrangement had caused horses to be ridden mainly in two ways. Either you rode a horse at a walk, and could travel for long distances very slowly, or you could ride her at breakneck speed for brief periods of time. The reason for this is that when a horse moves her legs in diagonal tandem at high speeds, it tends to be very uncomfortable for the rider. Faster, traditionally gaited horses were often used by nobles in antiquity and the early middle ages to sprint across fields during battle, and were highly praised in war-time because of their ability to quickly catch the enemy. But outside of war, these naturally gaited horses had their own problems. Because a naturally gaited horse’s bones and muscles are shifting from side to side, riding a natural gait at high speed leads to so-called “saddle-sores” if you ride for too long. Consequently, it is impossible to ride a naturally gaited horse at high speed for very long and allows for short-distance travel exclusively. The alternative to riding ‘natural gaits’ at speed is to ride at “walking” speeds — about 4 mph — which doesn’t allow you to go very far either, since even though it is more comfortable to ride for long amounts of time, you are still travelling barely faster than a speedy human walk. So, when these abnormal British horses began walking in this new, strange way, it might have seemed at first to be some kind of undesirable birth defect. Even today this mutation, which eventually came to be known as an “ambling” gait, is described as “strange,” “awkward,” and “funny.” But the British horse breeders who discovered this alteration also noticed that it allowed them some remarkable advantages.
The new “ambling” gait was in fact the result of a genetic mutation in horses that occurred in York, England, in around 850 CE. The mutation — on a gene related to limb movement and motion, DMRT3 — allowed these horses to move both side legs at the same time at speed; only one foot is off the ground at any given time. For reasons that we’ll return to, these horses that acquired this new “ambling” gait were exported from the British Isles and spread quickly in mainland Europe and Scandinavia.
When they came to mainland Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries, it became necessary to differentiate these gawky, stumbling horses from “normal” ones in some way. Horse dealers and breeders described these horses as ones that “ambled,” a word that found its way into English by way of assimilation of the Old French word ambler, which was in turn borrowed from the Occitan amblar. Occitan, a language that is still spoken today, is a very old language that was born when Roman invaders moved into the south of France and the native language mixed with Latin. This Occitan word, amblar, is then a direct descendant of the Latin word for walking, ambulare. Here, then, is the genealogy of the modern English sense of “ambling.” But we’ll come back to that.
The popularity of these horses came from the fact that their particular gait was much more comfortable for riders when moving at high speeds. Because three of their legs are on the ground at once, the horses remain more stable and level than in “natural” gaits; they also are able to move over diverse and even dangerous terrain for the same reason that it is easier for us to walk over a pile of rocks than run over it: more feet on the ground equals sure-footedness; as a result, the rider experiences much less turbulence. Ambling gaits allowed riders to move faster than a “walk,” but slower than a “gallop,” and therefore to travel great distances at a time. Horses with an ambling gait became popular for pleasure riding in the middle ages because of their sure-footedness and speed — not a crawl, but slower and more leisurely than “natural” gaited horses. Across the Atlantic, centuries later, large farm and plantation owners in the United States found these ambling horses to be particularly useful because of their ability to endure long journeys through fields and other more difficult terrain.
This particular ability — to easily traverse diverse terrains — meant that they were not confined to the roads, open plains, or easy paths. Instead they could travel through the circuitous paths of rocky woods, over stocks and stones, kicking sand across the water carved beach. Their walks could be, like that of the poet described in Neruda’s poem above, a journey over “the rocks and clods of earth;” or, like Anthony’s important moments in life, they could be following stranger paths, ones that lead to “the door of memory,” unexpectedly leading horse and rider to “sniff around a bit” inside consciousness. Anthony’s metaphor is apt, I think, for what ambling is like. An amble not only leads to unexpected places, but it also comes upon you as a surprise. No one “goes out for an amble” the way that one “goes out for a walk,” or plans to “promenade through the park.” Instead we simply find ourselves ambling once we’re out.
For centuries this term — “ambling” — was reserved for these mutated horses cruising comfortably across Europe. Then, in the 1600s — during the revolutionary beginnings of what we now call Modern English — the term came to be used as a metaphor to describe people who walked in this awkward though comfortable manner. A human who ambled, like its equine namesake, was one who did so for pleasure, without a particular end in mind, nor with any expectation of what the journey might bring. In Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons, the police chief Monsieur Vitel is mocked by the imposing bourgeois gentleman Monsieur Frazier for using his position as the administrator of the Justice of Peace as “an ambling pad” rather than the authoritarian “war-horse” that Frazier would like to use it for. For Frazier, the post of Justice of the Peace simply shouldn’t be used for the kind of frivolity and purposelessness that is associated with “ambling.”
Further back, in the work of the greatest craftsman of Modern English — William Shakespeare — we read again this understanding that whatsoever “ambles” is frivolous and misguided with respect to “serious” realities. The ambler pursues or represents pleasure and joy, playfulness and wantonness. Just as ambling horses were the choice for pleasure riding and not war-time, in “serious” situations, amblers — human or equine or otherwise — have no place. Their place is elsewhere, in the world of pleasure, daydreams and, as we’ll see, hallucinations.
What we should first notice about this word is that its evolution and emergence in language is the result of a mutation and evolution in the very DNA of the horse species. Like the curious, bumbling horses from York, the Latin ambulare underwent a subtle but profound shift in its genetic makeup in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Because of the fact that in the absence of wild mutations nature tends to work at such a slow rate, we don’t normally have the opportunity to see a word so clearly follow the process of natural selection. The word — ambling — is beautiful because it demonstrates the nearness of the physical process of the horse’s evolution to the language we use to describe our world, of the material to the ideal, of substance to semantics. The ambling path of this word through history, making its way from Rome to the South of France and from there to England, is a clear and robust example of the way that language isn’t simply ready at hand for us to use. No, rather, it lives, migrates, and evolves in much the same way that an organism does, shifting over time, and undergoing genetic variation as it encounters new environments and actors. Just as ambling horses hold over many atavistic traits (nearly all of them, in fact) from “naturally” gaited horses, our sense of the word itself bears the marks of use from its own history in modern English, the imprint of the mutant horses of York, and its linguistic roots in Greek and Latin.
If we attend to those roots for a moment, we can learn even more. Ambulare is a cognate with the ancient Greek ἀλύω (pronounced something like “alyo”). A cognate is a word that is generally considered to be conceptually equivalent to some word in another language, like dog and perro in English and Spanish, or sea and mer in English and French. Ambulare is a compound of the prefix ambi– (on both sides, or around) and the root alo (to wander). We should note also that the Latin alo itself most likely derived from the Greek ἀλύω, so that the English word “amble” is something like its great-great-grandchild. That ambulare and ἀλύω are cognates is interesting because ἀλύω describes not just ambling through the physical world, but also wandering through your own thoughts. It is from ἀλύω that we get the word “hallucination” and its actor, “hallucinator.” The sense of ambling as somehow disconnected to the ‘real’ world, untethered and wandering, perhaps draws part of its resonance from this part of its semantic DNA. This is because hallucinations are often described as perceptions that have no external stimulus; they come to us in our “private” world, in our minds alone. As such, hallucinations can be understood both as a disconnect from the shared world of perception and as an added layer that consciousness finds laid over that world, deepening its richness, beauty, horror, and depth. To amble is not just to walk through the physical world slowly, without purpose, and comfortably; it also implies a mental experience, where we drift through our memories, through imagined situations, and among dreams that we haven’t yet had.
This might account for some of the disparaging opinions that Balzac’s Frazier and Shakespeare’s King Richard have for ambling and amblers. This prejudice, in fact, goes all the way back to Plato, who associated the act of “wandering” — another translation for ἀλύω — with disorder, irrationality, and the imperfection in the Timaeus. To amble is to move in a way that lies outside of the goal-oriented, rational, and purposive means of moving through space that Frazier imagines, or Plato idealizes. Frazier’s war-horse approach to the Justice of Peace position makes for a perfect foil to that of Vitel’s ambling. The difference is not simply one of physical difference, where one moves their limbs in differing ways; no, these two approaches are entirely different states of mind as well. When the war-horse — or at least her rider — is charging toward the battle, or the galloping horse of Paul Revere is sprinting across the countryside to inform the nation of a coming invasion, they have a definite end in mind, a goal that must be achieved as soon and efficiently as possible. The ambling horse and rider, the bumbling chief of the Peace, the stray dogs wandering aimlessly into the doors of memory, these have no purpose, and will produce no utility or profit other than the satisfaction of movement itself, of peering through the veils of the world, hallucinating, driven to wander by wonder. This is a state of mind just the same as that of the war-horse, a mental lens through which the ambler sees the world, but one that is entirely in a world of its own.
Thinking back to Anthony’s ambling dogs and the way that ambling sneaks up on us — often without our realizing we’ve been doing it until later reflecting in the comfort of hearth and home — we might also note that the reason that no one “goes out for an amble” is that this would be a kind of contradiction in terms. An amble is, I think, a journey with no end, no telos, and to make a point of ambling, to set out to amble, is setting up a goal, an end. True to its hallucinatory essence, ambling is like dreaming: it is often only after we have ambled that we realize we were doing it in the first place; like dreaming, ambling takes us to strange places and unfamiliar territory; ambling is something that we find ourselves in the midst of, not having set out at first to be there; disorienting, to be sure, but also full of all the wonder and mystery of the mind set wildly adrift.