Trammeling on the Constitution

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Andrew Rotherham, "A looming shadow over No Child Left Behind", Time Magazine, 6/16/2011:

The chattering class was even sourer. American Enterprise Institute scholar and pundit Rick Hess accused Duncan of trammeling on the Constitution.

Typo for trampling? Maybe, but this word-confusion  is commoner than I would have expected.

Harry McCracken, "Can Microsoft Get Its Mojo Back?", Time Magazine, 11/02/2010:

Once upon a time, Microsoft used the dominance of Windows and Office to bulldoze its way into new territories, gleefully trammeling over any company that dared get in its way.

Justice O'Connor, dissenting in United States v. Paradise, 1987:

The District Court had available several alternatives that would have achieved full compliance with the consent decrees without trammeling on the rights of nonminority troopers.

Justice Ness, opinion in State v. Duane Ivan Ellefson, Supreme Court of South Carolina, 1976:

We take no pleasure in reversing this conviction. The letters which we exclude confirm the propriety of the jury's verdict. Nevertheless, our respect for constitutional rights of citizens requires that the State not seek advantage by the use of evidence gained by trammeling upon those rights.

"Who owns the north?", Sharp Magazine, 2008:

For the Canadian raised on an elementary school diet of snowshoeing, making igloos from sugar cubes and watching NFB videos of musk oxen trammeling through the tundra, the notion that the Far North might not be ours can come as a shock.

Iris éireannach nua, 1998:

Gaeltacht poverty, so O'Nolan tells us, is picturesque to tourists looking for a benign pastoral landscape untrammeled by the dirty boots of Saxon colonizers, but in practice living with pigs is not all it is cracked up to be.

Clayne Jensen & Steven Guthrie, Outdoor recreation in America:

Moreover, the nature that Europeans found in America was not "untrammeled"; native Americans had been manipulating and "trammeling" through the country for centuries, aleit with considerably less impact than that of Europeans.

Dave Itzkoff, Cocaine's Son:

This would be followed by the sound of his bare, heavy feet trammeling across the floor, and he would reappear in my room in nothing more than his underwear and grab me by the arm.

Frommer's Norway:

Like any airport hotel, this one is somewhat impersonal and trammeled over by hordes of travelers en route to somewhere else, and the restaurants are far from personalized.

And there was a discussion on the Eggcorn Forum, back in May of 2007, of this quote attributed (perhaps through transcriber error) to Gary Shteyngart in a May 11, 2007 article in the Boston Globe Sidekick Magazine:

"I come from two anxiety-ridden cultures – Russian and Jewish – in which you feel your chances of survival are being trammeled upon."

The OED registers a noun trammel, originally "A long narrow fishing-net, set vertically with floats and sinkers; consisting of two 'walls' of large-meshed netting, between which is a net of fine mesh, loosely hung"; later "A hobble to prevent a horse from straying or kicking"; and so, figuratively, "Anything that hinders or impedes free action; anything that confines, restrains, fetters, or shackles" (noted to be "Chiefly pl."). And there's a denominal verb, originally "To bind up a corpse", "To use a trammel-net", or "To fasten together (the legs of a horse) with trammels; and thus figuratively "To entangle or fasten up as in a trammel", "To hinder the free action of; to put restraint upon, fetter, hamper, impede, confine".

The OED's etymology is

< Old French tramail (c1220 in Godefroy Compl.), modern French trémail a fishing- or fowling-net, with three layers of meshes, = Italian tramaglio, Spanish trasmallo, Portuguese trasmalho < late popular Latin tramaculum for tri-, tremaculum (in Salic Law, Hessels, Cod. 1, xxvii. 20, tremaclem, v.rr. tremalem, tremagilo, tramaculam, trimaclem, tremagolum, tremachlum, etc.) a kind of fishing-net, generally explained as < Latin tri- three + macula mesh. In the Romanic languages the prefix appears to have been taken as = tra-, Latin trans.

The other word apparently involved in this confusion is trample, for which the etymology is

Middle English trampel-en, trample-n, in form a frequentative of tramp v.1 (see -le suffix 3): compare the analogous Middle High German, German, Low German trampeln.

(It's possible that travel has a bit of influence here as well, in cases like "trammeling through".)



28 Comments

  1. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Untrammeled meaning unfettered is the way I have used trammel on those one-in-a-million occasions when it is the right word, as in untrammeled access. Perhaps trammel is an incorrection or a perceived loftier way of saying trample.

  2. D S Onosson said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    I've always thought "to trammel" meant moving freely, with determination. Things may get trampled in the process, but that's purely incidental.

  3. Nathan said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    Smells like a cupertino.

    [(myl) But there are examples from before the invention of the word-processor spell-checking program, e.g.

    In this massive place of haven and help the recognition of the truth that nature finally brings them to one school to ponder and think; to acknowledge that her laws have been ignored and trammeled upon, is constantly active in their minds. [W. Lee Howard, The Perverts, 1902]

    Rogers agree, saying the right of suffrage was trammeled upon with more rigor in Pennsylvania than in any other state. [Marguerite Gold Bartlett, The chief phases of Pennsylvania politics in the Jacksonian period, 1919]

    ]

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    I'm with Mr Fnortner. I've always heard "trammel" as a part of "untrammeled access" or something like that. It seems to me like a malapropism, pure and simple.

  5. Marilyn Martin said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Seems to me that 'trammelling" is used in these examples to mean "tramping"–"traveling on foot, often heavily."

    For the Canadian raised on an elementary school diet of snowshoeing, making igloos from sugar cubes and watching NFB videos of musk oxen trammeling through the tundra, the notion that the Far North might not be ours can come as a shock.

    Moreover, the nature that Europeans found in America was not "untrammeled"; native Americans had been manipulating and "trammeling" through the country for centuries, aleit with considerably less impact than that of Europeans.

    This would be followed by the sound of his bare, heavy feet trammeling across the floor, and he would reappear in my room in nothing more than his underwear and grab me by the arm.

  6. Chris Waters said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    The Iris éireannach nua case might well be standard usage, though the juxtaposition of those boots does raise doubts. It's a bit poetic either way, so I'm not really sure, but "unfettered" seems to work too. What the author actually meant, I can't guess, but I will admit that the use of "untrammeled" probably makes it seem more reasonable to me. "Untrammeled" feels commonplace, but "trammeled" seems arcane (or archaic) and a bit bizarre.

    I second Nathan's suggestion that this has the odor of cupertino about it. What I really regret is that I'm not going to be around in 100 years to see what the long-term effects of spilling chuckers on the language will be.

  7. Terry Hart said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    This post reminded me of this passage from Jed Rubenfeld's 'The Freedom of Imagination' (2002) —
    "An often-quoted formulation from the Fifth Circuit is illustrative: '[T]he first amendment is not a license to trammel on legally recognized rights in intellectual property.' The phrase 'trammel on' is slightly mysterious, since 'on' is not used with 'trammel,' and since trammel means catch (as in a net) or confine. 'Trample' may have been intended; at any rate its grammar may have slipped into the sentence. But the court's thought seems clear enough: One who trespasses on another's property cannot hide behind the First Amendment."

  8. GeorgeW said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    Since all of these are in writing, at least some could be spelling errors. I wonder if there are any speech examples or recurring use by the same speaker.

  9. J Lee said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    so even being the first female Justice doesn't prevent her from trying to polish her prose by substituting for 'trample' a presumed rarer synonym? as for where that plosive went, no similar exammels come to mind

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    I'm off down the pub to get trammelled. Cheers!

  11. Alan Curry said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    Could be influenced by "pummel". If you want to be generous to the authors, you could even read it as a deliberate mixing of "trample" and "pummel", a sort of trampling that uses hands and feet, making it more severe than a regular trampling.

  12. Tom said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    My familiarity with (not understanding of) this term comes from studying the Wilderness Act of 1964 where the Definition of Wilderness is:

    "c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

    We had perplexing discussions about what this might mean in both Pubic Natural Resources and Environmental Law (generally coming up with "un-trampled" as the most likely meaning), and it led me to use the phrase "non-man-trammeled land" in my final for Enviro Law.

  13. Mark Mandel said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

    The Cupertino explanation doesn't hold water, since spellchuckers miscorrect from the rare to the common, and "trample" -> "trammel" goes from the common to the rare.

    As Messrs. Fnortner & Lubliner have pointed out, the traditional (= "what we grew up with") use of "trammel" seems to be* pretty much restricted to the negated passive participle "untrammeled", mostly with "access"; and so people generally deduce its meaning from context. That + the similarity in spelling and pronunciation are explanations enough.

    * Thus do I wriggle out of doing an actual search.

  14. Faldone said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    tramle from my spellchecker gives trample as the first choice and trammel as the second. tramel gives trammel as the first choice. Modern examples could be cupertinos, but any pre spellcheck examples wouldn't be cupertinos.

  15. Cameron said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    I'd never seen this word before encountering in judicial opinions while I attended law school in the 80's. From context I inferred that it meant "intrude upon" and figured it was merely one of the archaic or fancy words that lawyers use to show off.

    I just researched opinions of the US Supreme court only, and the trouble seems to have started in the 1970s. Justice Marshall wrote of actions that may "trammel individual rights" (no "on" or "upon") in 1976. Justice Brennan used the same formulation in a famous job discrimination opinion from 1979; he used it again in a dissent in 1980. As judicial opinions lend themselves to re-quotation, the phrase obviously took root, and trammel has been used in this way in dozens of opinions since then. Since the meaning is not at all amibigous, it has probably never crossed the minds of the Justices or their law clerks that this phrase, now imbued with a long pedigree, started out as a malapropism.

  16. Rick Sprague said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    @Cameron: Or was it a malapropism? You didn't cite the opinion, but Justice Marshall's "trammel individual rights" (no "on" or "upon") is consistent with the OED's gloss "To hinder the free action of; to put restraint upon, fetter, hamper, impede, confine"; in other words, to deliberately weaken individual rights. The fault would then be with those who mistook him to be speaking figuratively about careless disregard for those rights.

  17. Anthea Fleming said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    'Trammel' was used correctly by Swinburne in the line :
    "Wild grasses trammel the travelling foot".
    Exactly what happened to me yesterday when I stepped on the top of some tall grass and created a loop which caught my other foot and tripped me…

  18. Bessel Dekker said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    Both 'untrammeled by man' (quoted by Tom) and 'actions that may "trammel individual rights"' (quoted by Cameron), however, seem correct, precisely because there is no '[up]on' in these constructions. The verb here may be taken to mean 'to hamper, to check the freedom [of]'.

  19. Alen Mathewson said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    The word is regularly, though perhaps not often, used in Scots and the online Dictionary of the Scottish Language has a citation from 1718 although it offers no etymology. French was, of course, for a time the official language of Scotland and there are a number of words of French origin that remain common in the language today.

  20. Mona Williams said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    When bison, boots, and feet are doing the trammeling, it does sound like an unwitting substitution of trammel for trample. But as several posters have suggested, trammel, with the following preposition omitted, can in many cases approximate what was probably the intended meaning.

    And thanks, Tom, for the nice cupertino!

  21. GeorgeW said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    I think I have read that /-le/ can be a diminutive suffix in English. If so, would 'trample' have developed as a diminutive of 'tramp?'

    [(myl) No; as noted in the body of the post, trample is a frequentative, as the meaning strongly suggests:

    Middle English trampel-en, trample-n, in form a frequentative of tramp v.1 (see -le suffix 3)

    What the OED says about -le 3:

    A verbal formative, repr. Middle English -(e)len, Old English -lian:—Old Germanic type –ilôjan, with a frequentative or sometimes a diminutive sense. Among the few examples that go back to Old English are nestle, twinkle, wrestle. In Middle English and early modern English the suffix was extensively used (like the equivalent forms in Middle High German and modern German and in Dutch) to form vbs. expressing repeated action or movement, as in brastle, crackle, crumple, dazzle, hobble, niggle, paddle, sparkle, topple, wriggle, etc. Many of these formations are from echoic roots, as babble, cackle, gabble, giggle, guggle, mumble, etc.

    ]

  22. Rolig said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    What seems most interesting here is that a very common word with a very clear and vivid concrete meaning, "trample", is being replaced by a much less common word, referring to a type of fishing net, which is usually used metaphorically to mean "impede" (e.g. "untrammeled access"). This seems like a case of writers reaching for the more arcane word in an attempt to sound more sophisticated.

  23. Sarah C. said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    A linguistic bottleneck? I admit that I have never construed "trammel" as synonymous with "fetter." I'm wondering if it has been reanalyzed as a phonaestheme of "trample" due to its common use in the construction "untrammeled by man" (and almost nowhere else outside of the courtroom). It's far more intuitive to me that man shouldn't trample the wilderness than that man shouldn't fetter the wilderness.

  24. Richard Bell said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Macbeth I, iii, 2-4: …If the assassination
    Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
    With his surcease, success …

  25. Tom said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    Mona Williams said: "And thanks, Tom, for the nice cupertino!"

    I must be missing something (as usual). Which one?

  26. Nathan said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    @Tom, it's not likely to be a cupertino, but "Pubic Natural Resources" was the fun error in your comment.

  27. I Can’t Stand It said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    […] . . when people start trammeling all over the English language. Cancel […]

  28. Tom said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    @Tom, it's not likely to be a cupertino, but "Pubic Natural Resources" was the fun error in your comment.

    Ha! More evidence of my proof reading skills.

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