Mind your language

The animal ferocity of ‘ramping up’

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

My husband is fond of an old pub in Northumberland called the Red Lion, once a drovers’ inn, it says. In fact my husband is fond of lots of pubs, many of them unattractive. The red (or gules) lion of the Scottish royal banner is rampant, ‘rearing up’.

This rampancy is connected in complicated ways with the ramping up of virus tests and such things, about which the government is forever talking. Scientific advisers and civil servants probably think ramping up is to provide an inclined plane or ramp. That kind of ramp is borrowed from the French rampe, used in the 16th century for the slope of a staircase. It derived exactly from the ramping of animals in medieval terminology, especially heraldic lions.


The French rampant was a participle, meaning ‘ramping, rearing’, and the French verb ramper is related to the rare English word rimple (and the less rare rumple). I find it entertainingly recondite that ramping and rimpling are thought to be connected with Ancient Greek krambos, meaning ‘a disease of grapes that makes them wrinkly’.

Alongside the healthy heraldic fauna rearing up, a number of criminal senses of rampingdeveloped. It’s clear that ramping up production, a phrase that appeared in the 1980s, came from ramping in the sense of ‘driving up the price of a stock to gain a financial advantage as part of a fraudulent scheme’. This came from ramp used since the early 20th century for an analogous plot. ‘We are told that this is a bankers’ “ramp”, or a conspiracy… against a Labour government,’ said Ramsay MacDonald of the economic crisis of 1931. The term bankers’ rampprobably grew from the kind of ramping that meant ‘snatching or violently taking property’ — what we’d call mugging. Behind the word was a confused idea dating from the Middle Ages that rampant creatures such as red lions were connected with the Latin words rapiens and rapax, ‘snatching’ and ‘grasping’.

While hoping to convey a smooth rise towards a step change, by the use of ramping upgovernment publicists have invoked a world of fraud, conspiracy, robbery, rapaciousness and animal ferocity.

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