La rame a eu des problèmes.

La rame a eu des problèmes.

lah rah mah ew day pruh-BLEMM. Click below to hear this.*

The train had problems.

If you look up rame in a French dictionary, you will likely start to wonder: how can one word have so many meanings? And what do they have to do with each other? Would you believe it if I told you that there are actually four different words?

The oldest one is probably la rame, Old French raim, meaning branch. (Well, that’s how it started out, around the year 980. Later, the meaning morphed into a stick, such as the sort of thing you train vines to grow upwards on.) That’s from the Latin ramus, branch.

Next came la rame meaning oar. The Latin word remus (oar)) evolved into rain (nothing to do with English rain; pronounce it /raa/, with a nasal vowel), then raime, and finally rame. Here we are in the realm of boating, and the first French version of the word was attested around 1112. By the 15th century, the word had taken its modern form.

Around 1360, another word wandered into the French language…this time, from the Arabic rizma, meaning a bundle of paper. Are you surprised to learn that this is the origin of the English word ream, as in “a ream of paper”? In French, it’s une rame de papier. The word also means a bundle of 20 rolls of wallpaper, don’t ask me why. Who chose these quantities?

How to explain the fact that this same word also came to mean a string of barges or railroad cars connected to each other is beyond me. Maybe the rolls of wallpaper, lined up end to end, resemble train cars. Maybe the Arabic word also means “a camel train”; I have no idea. I am sure that piles of paper, rolls of wallpaper, strings of barges, and trains (camel or railway) have rather little in common.

Anyway, that’s the meaning that is reflected in today’s sentence. My Twitter friend Aurélie Valtat (@avaltat) mentioned the other day: “Pris le métro 6x ces derniers jours de Montgomery à Schuman a 8h du mat et 3x la rame a eu des pbs ou était arrêtée.” Can you decipher the abbreviations?

Finally, from the Frankish language arose one more meaning, this one stemming from the trades: une rame being a frame on which to stretch fabric that is drying. It’s similar to a modern German word, Rahmen, which means a framework.

It’s an interesting fact of etymology that words from very different origins can develop into words that appear to be identical. This is a great example of that, but how it happens is a story for another day.

*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file:

la-rame-a-eu-des-problemes.mp3

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