8 Words for Walking with Surprising Origins

Do you simply walk, or do you trundle, meander, roam, and shamble?

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #830
The Quick And Dirty

It's not surprising that we have so many words for something we do so much. Many words for walking are so old that their origins are unknown, but when we do know, the origins are often charming or surprising. And even when we don't know, the speculation is interesting.

When you walk, do you amble? Meander? Shuffle? Trundle? I definitely trundle. I walk almost every day, and when it's time, my husband always asks, "Are you ready to trundle?" And if he's being really funny, he'll say "Get ready to trundle!" in an announcer voice, as if we're heading out to something as exciting as a wrestling match.

1. Trundle

"Trundle" the verb comes from "trundle" the noun, which first appeared in the year 1564 to describe a trundle bed because it referred to small wheels or rollers, and a trundle bed is a bed on rollers that you can move around, often rolling it underneath another bed for storage and pulling it out when you need it. 

The walking meaning of the word didn't appear until more than a hundred years later in 1680. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one meaning is to walk with a rolling gait, so that's how we get from physical wheels or rollers to a way of walking.

2. Walk

Like many words for very basic things we do, the verb "walk" is old. The first written example of "walk" to mean "move about on foot" goes back to about 1200, but the OED speculates that it had that meaning earlier, and it was just used colloquially and wasn't written down.

It had other meanings that were written down earlier though. Going all the way back to Old English, written examples include "to walk" meaning "to roll," "to turn over," "to toss something," and "to wrap around something."

3. Amble

"Amble" popped up in the 1300s and first referred to something a horse did. It wasn't until 1576 that it came to refer to people who moved in a smooth, steady way at moderate speed, suggestive of how a horse moves.

4. Shuffle

"Shuffle" appeared in 1598, and according to the OED, its first use was to describe a way of walking. The origin of "shuffle" is unclear, but multiple sources say it could come from the German word "schuffeln," meaning to walk clumsily or with dragging feet, or it could be the frequentative form of the verb "to shove." 

I had to look up what "frequentative" means! That's a verb form that indicates repetition, so if you're shuffling, the idea is that you're making the motion of a series of little shoves. 

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Other frequentatives are "prickle," as in you get a prickle on the back of your neck instead of just one prick. "Sniffle," which is a series of sniffs, and "sparkle," which is more than just one spark. Frequentatives often end with "-le" (like "sparkle," "sniffle," and "prickle"), but not always.

5. Meander

"Meander" is a relative newcomer, coming to mean "to wander aimlessly" in 1831, when it was used in a collection of folklore called "Legends & Stories of Ireland" in a line in which a piper named Paddy is described as "meandering along through the fields." 

The word itself goes back to the name of a Greek winding river though, Maiandros! According to Etymonline, "the Greeks used the name of the river figuratively for winding patterns."

6. Roam

The origin of "roam" is uncertain, but the OED speculates that one possibility is that it comes from the name of the city, Rome (even though they are spelled differently). 

Lots of Romance languages have a word similar to "roam" that means "pilgrim" (Italian has "romeo," for example, and Old French has "romi"), and at least in post-classical Latin, that word meant a pilgrim on the way to the city of Rome. So it could be that the verb "to roam"—before it entered English—originally came from the idea of wandering around on your way to Rome; although it doesn't look like it was specifically used that way in English, where it first appeared in the 1300s to mean simply "wander around."

7. Ramble

"Roam" is also interesting because it might be the source of "ramble," which began to mean wandering in a free, unrestrained way in 1615. Again, the origin of "ramble" is unknown, but Etymonline says it could be the frequentative form of the verb "to roam." 

8. Shamble

Finally, at the end of a long walk, you might shamble — walk awkwardly or unsteadily. "Shamble" is interesting because it comes from the noun "shambles," as in "This room is a shambles." 

A shamble was originally a stool or a table, and then it came to describe a table specifically for selling meat. Then, the plural, "shambles," came to mean any place where meat was sold, and then even later it could describe a slaughterhouse. Then you can see how in the 1920s, first in the United States, "shambles" — a place of blood and carnage and slaughter — came to take on the figurative meaning of a messy disaster. The first citation in the OED from the book "Microbe Hunters" reads, "Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants."

But still, how did we get from there to "shamble" being a way you could walk?

Well, it goes back to that original stool or table meaning. Around the time "shamble" started being used to describe a place of carnage or slaughter, it also started being used as an adjective with an association with legs.

"Shamble legged" was first used as an adjective in 1607 to describe someone awkward or with ill-shaped legs. The first citationin the OED reads "A leane fellowe, with sunke eyes, and shamble legges." And then in 1699 it showed up again in a dictionary of jargon and slang: "Shamble-Legg'd", "one that goes wide, and shuffles his feet about."

The OED speculates that sense goes back to the table meaning from the sloping legs of a table, like we'd see in a sawhorse today, or maybe to the stool meaning because of the way your legs sit awkwardly when you straddle a bench. And along the same lines, Etymonline points out that the French word for being "bow-legged" is translated as "bench-legged."

So "shamble" started as a word that meant a stool or a table and then took at least two paths. One through slaughterhouses to mean a disaster and another through awkward legs to mean to walk awkwardly or unsteadily.

I hope you enjoyed this meandering journey through walking words and that I can accompany you through many more walks while you listen to the podcast.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.