Monday, June 22, 2015

Word of the day: gam

You might wear out your index-finger running up and down the columns of dictionaries, and never find the word. Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it. Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly, it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon. With that view, let me learnedly define it.

GAM. NOUN — A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851).
An incomplete survey:

Gam did make it into a dictionary in Melville’s lifetime: The Century Dictionary (1889–1891, online here) has entries for the word as a noun and verb. The word is missing from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913, online here), but it appears in Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition (1934). Or it at least appears in my 1954 copy. As a noun: “A herd, or school of whales. A visit between whalers at sea, hence, Local , U.S. , social intercourse between persons ashore.” As an intransitive verb: “Naut . To gather in a gam;— said of whales. To engage in a gam, or, Local , U.S. , in social intercourse anywhere.” As a transitive verb: “To have a gam with or visit with.” The OED has another noun, gamming , which is missing from Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third. It, too, describes a visit at sea.

In The Century and Webster’s Second , gam refers first to whales and later to human beings. In Webster’s Third and the OED, it’s the other way around. So Melville’s meaning came first. It would seem that sailors at some point must have begun to describe whale gatherings in terms of their own stop-and-chats.

But whence gam ? The Century suggests “Perhaps a var. of jam .” The OED suggests that the word may be a variant of game, “Amusement, sport, fun; pleasure, enjoyment.” Webster’s Second : “Origin uncert.” Webster’s Third: “perh. short for obs. gammon talk, chatter.”

Surprising to me: gam has meant “leg” since 1785. I think of that gam as originating in old-movie talk: “Nice gams, sister.”

Also from Moby-Dick
“Nothing exists in itself”
Nantucket ≠ Illinois
“Round the world!”

[That lovely bit of punctuation — “To gather in a gam;— said of whales” — says a lot about the spaciousness of Webster’s Second . Compare Webster’s Third ’s perh. and obs.]

comments: 5

The Crow said...

Gam = leg is the only definition I knew, prior to reading this post. Learn something new every day here!

Michael Leddy said...

Me too. :)

Sean said...

Same here for "gam", which I believe is derived from Italiab gamba. And also "jamb" as in doorjamb, from French jambe, also meaning 'leg'.

Richard Abbott said...

Over here in England there is the phrase "a gammy leg" - rather archaic now but most folk would still recognise it as indicating it was defective in some way.

Michael Leddy said...

@Sean: I never realized the connection to the viola da gamba.

@Richard: In the United States, it’s pretty common to refer to a game leg — same thing.