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OPINION: 'Ramp up' has many meanings

by Bernadette Kinlaw | May 24, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.

I bring you two other news cliches.

Ramp up is a popular news phrase. It means to speed up or increase or expand. But maybe people think it sounds a bit cooler than its synonyms.

Ramp on its own has three other definitions I hadn't heard. The first is to stand or advance menacingly with forelegs or arms raised. I assume the forelegs reference means a four-legged animal is doing the advancing. The Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz" immediately comes to mind. He's moving in with a "Put 'em up! Put 'em up!"

It also means to move or act furiously, which is nearly the same as the first definition.

And, third, it means to creep up — used especially of plants. Well, that one is going to give me nightmares. I have plants on the deck outside my bedroom. I don't want them creeping up on me as I sleep.

But back to ramp up. I found examples in The Washington Post:

"Officials say they would need to ramp up testing if the number of tests declined as the number of positive infections grew."

"German carmakers were slower to develop all-electric models until tougher environmental regulations and sales lost to California-based Tesla pushed them to ramp up their efforts."

One person uses the phrase as a noun, which is dismaying:

"Ramp-up is going to have to be extremely significant to be able to reach their goals," said Airfinity senior analyst Matt Linley.

I learned from The American Heritage Dictionary that ramp down is a phrase also. It means to decrease in volume, amount or rate.

But, at least in a quick search of The Washington Post website, ramp up is far more popular. I found almost 11,000 uses of that phrase.

Ramp down had only 112 results.

"Trump will huddle Wednesday in Washington with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in what Europeans are calling a last-minute bid to ramp down transatlantic tensions."

The second cliche is tamp down. (A distant relative to ramp down because of the -amp maybe?)

To tamp is to drive in or down by a succession of light or medium blows.

Tamp down means to a put a check on or reduce.

From The Washington Post, though the idea of tamping down noise just seems like it would be noisier:

"The town has been trying for decades to tamp down excess noise from street performers and others."

Also from The Post:

"Millbridge Elementary School hosted a webinar last fall for teachers to explain math expectations to parents and tamp down pressure for perfection with homework."

Tamping down pressure does not sound safe.

Recently, I heard someone use tamp back. That has to be tricky. How do you unhammer something or take back a tapping? I think one needs a hammer claw or pliers.

COMITY

Comity is a great word. It means harmony or agreement or a friendly relationship.

Sadly, I've seen the word primarily in stories describing the lack of comity in Congress.

It has two other main definitions. One was normal, and one was obscure.

The first was the informal and voluntary recognition by courts of one jurisdiction of the laws and judicial decisions of another.

The obscure (to me) definition is from The Free Dictionary. From theology, comity is the policy whereby one religious denomination refrains from proselytizing the members of another.

Though it's a great word, it makes me think twice when I hear someone on TV say it. At times, I think the person has said comedy, which is far different.

GO SOUTH

The expression go south is amusing in that it rarely describes a person heading in a southerly direction. It has taken on a few other meanings.

To go south can mean to disappear or escape.

I can remember an episode of the ubiquitous "Law & Order" in which police go to pick up a suspect. When they arrive, they report that the suspect has "gone south."

The Online Etymology Dictionary uses one of my favorite words to describe go south: abscond. It says it's American English from the 1920s, probably from the mid-19th-century notion of disappearing south to Mexico or Texas to escape pursuit or responsibility.

Before that educational "Law & Order" episode, I thought to go south meant to die.

And it does mean that, too.

One site reported: "The American Dictionary of Regional English suggests the term is derived from the Native American belief that go south means to die. In fact, a Harper's Magazine article in 1894 reported: 'To go south is, among the Sioux, the favorite euphemism for death.'"

I didn't read Harper's Magazine back in 1894, but I believe what was said.

The phrase also means to go downhill.

From The Post:

"More equity in homes ... leaves [homeowners] in a much better position to weather a downturn and less likely to walk away from their homes when things go south."

"Gulf oystermen bracing for livelihoods to go south."

I'll add this tidbit I found even though I wasn't looking for it.

In Britain, go west means nearly the same things as go south does in the U.S. Like go south, it means to be lost, to be destroyed, to vanish or to end in failure.

But Horace Greeley popularized go west in the 19th-century United States, with a different definition. The phrase is often linked to Greeley, but it was first used by John Babson Lane Soule in an editorial: "Go West, young man, go West." Greeley changed it a little to: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country," which apparently inspired many people to settle in the West after the Civil War.

I guess that's what you'd call powerful words. (But I'm sure he's glad he didn't use that phrase in Britain.)

Sources include Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage Dictionary, The Free Dictionary, Word Histories, The Courant, Encyclopedia.com, Online Etymology Dictionary. Reach Bernadette at

bkwordmonger@gmail.com

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