Gamble, Gambol, Ham and Gambrel: In Praise of Inefficiency

The great thing about Google is that it takes you straight to the information you want to find (or, in any case, straight to the information that the Keeper of the Algorithm wants you to find). The great thing about every other method of organizing and/or delivering information is that it DOESN’T take you straight to the information you want to find. 

Back when I was walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, if you wanted to know something you had to go to the library and get a book. And in order to get that book, you had to walk past a lot of other books. This quaint fact accounts for a good 20% of my education. Fetching a book about, say, Shakespeare required me to scan whole shelves of other books about Shakespeare—books I didn’t even know I wanted or needed to read. In graduate school it wasn’t unusual for me to emerge from the stacks with six or seven books, but not the one I originally went looking for. You don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes the only way to find out is through that highly inefficient, often inconvenient process known as wandering around. But as GK Chesterton observed, an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

I thought of those old pre-Internet wanderings yesterday when my children were discussing the French and Spanish words for ham

Back before was a thing, I used to noodle around in the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. The OED is a miracle. (The Professor and the Madman, by the way, is a fascinating little book about how the OED came to be.) The OED, according to its own website, is “the most complete record of the English language ever assembled.” At twenty volumes, I should think so. I have the “compact” edition, which crams all the entries from twenty reasonable-sized volumes into two huge folio volumes, each three inches thick and weighing fifteen pounds together. Either of the two would be the biggest book in my house. They come with a magnifying glass. 

The dictionary websites are incredibly efficient. You want to know what a word means or where it came from? You’re only a couple of seconds away. Not so with the OED. The OED is a place to ramble (especially if your eyes are still young).

One of my favorite rambles came when I was curious about the words gambleand gambol. I figured they both came from whatever root gave us the word game, since to gamble is to play games of chance, and to gambol about is to run and jump and play games, probably in a meadow. I was curious as to how and when the meaning diverged between playing dangerous games on the one hand and playing innocent games on the other. That is exactly the kind of information that is on offer in the OED.

But the OED surprised me. The two words, though homophones, are unrelated. Gamble does ultimately derive from the Anglo-Saxon root that gave us game. But gambol has a more interesting history that leads down quite a rabbit trail. 

Gambol is more closely related to the word ham than to the word gamble. The late Latin camba or gamba means leg. Hence the French jambon, the Spanish jamon, and the English ham—the cut of meat that comes from the leg of a hog. This root is also the source of the now-obsolete gam, meaning the leg of a human being, and especially an adult female human being, as in “The palooka elbowed the wise guy and said, ‘Get a load of the gams on that dame.’”

To gambol is to kick up one’s legs. A form of the word originally came into the language from the French gambade, which describes the curveting of a horse. 

The same root, gamba, also gives us jamb, the leg that holds up a doorway, and iamb, a metrical foot of poetry (as in iambic pentameter). A gambrel roof is that barn-style roof that has an extra bend between the roofline and the eave, like the bend of a horse’s back leg. 

I’ll conclude this discourse with the word gambit (not to be confused with gamut, which has its own fascinating story). A gambit is a stratagem or a calculated move. The word is often associated with chess, in which a player will put a pawn at risk in order to gain an advantage against an opponent. So where do you suppose the word gambit comes from? Is it more closely related to gamble and game, or to gambol and ham? You would think gamble, wouldn’t you? A stratagem is always a gamble, a risk. And chess, of course, is a game.

But before gambit referred to a chess strategy, it referred a wrestling strategy—the strategy of gaining an advantage over one’s opponent by tripping up his legs. The Italians called it a gambetto

Thanks for indulging me (if, indeed, you are still indulging me). You had more efficient ways to use your time than to meander along the various paths that derive from the late Latin word gamba. But this letter is a celebration of inefficiency. When we don't know what we don't know, an efficient search often turns out to be a case of making better time to a place you don't need to be. 

I am highly grateful for the efficiency of Google and I used both to check my facts about gamble, gambol, ham, and gambit. But without that old inefficient, inconvenient (and time-honored) tradition of flipping through a dusty book, I don’t suppose I would have ever known about the connections between those words. I take that back: one could definitely discover those connections via the Internet, but only if one were using the Internet inefficiently.

But why, you may ask, is it necessary to know these things about ham and gamboling? That one is easy to answer: It is not necessary. But the unnecessary is the most important thing about us.