“Mommy, What’s a Tramp?”

A Wrinkle in Time Cover QuintetWe meet Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time on a dark and stormy night. As a hurricane batters her 200-year-old house, she’s consumed by worries about her missing father, her failures at school, and a piece of news she heard at the post office:

“[S]he’d heard about a tramp who was supposed to have stolen twelve sheets from Mrs. Buncombe, the constable’s wife. They hadn’t caught him, and maybe he was heading for the Murrys’ house right now, isolated on a back road as it was; and this time maybe he’d be after more than sheets.”

Looking up from the Kindle, one of my seven-year-old twins asks, “Mommy, what’s a tramp?”

“That’s a word people don’t seem to use much anymore. It can be offensive. What do you think it means in this context?

“A thief,” she answers after re-reading the passage.

That’s close. Consulting the New Oxford American Dictionary by clicking on the word in the e-book, my twins learn that a “tramp” is “a person who travels from place to place on foot in search of work or as a vagrant or beggar.”

They don’t notice the sexist “informal” definition a few lines below it, thereby avoiding the follow-up question: “Mommy, what does promiscuous mean?”

tra

The meaning of “tramp” that appears in A Wrinkle in Time — a vagrant or beggar — developed in the 1870s, when the completion of the railroad enabled the unemployed to travel across the United States. This group of itinerant poor typically consisted of men, in part because they were less likely to receive charitable help than women were. As historian Kenneth Kusmer explains in Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (citing the work of sociologist Theda Skocpol):

“By the end of the nineteenth century [], the world of the homeless had become an overwhelmingly masculine realm. This was not because women were less at risk to become homeless… Rather, it was mostly a consequence of the gender ideology of the Victorian era, which assumed that women were weaker and less able to care for themselves than men… [T]his mentality led to the establishment of numerous institutions to assist indigent women and children…”

However, there were women riding the rails too, often dressed in masculine attire to blend in and to protect themselves from physical and sexual violence. As historian Tim Cresswell describes:

“Many commentators during the period 1875-1939 referred to female tramps and prostitutes in the same breath, often making the assumption that the two were more or less equal (186).”

With this history, it’s little wonder that “tramp,” a word used since the 1870s to describe a typically “masculine realm,” would assume a sexual connotation when applied to women in contemporary times.

In the public’s perception, tramps of all genders challenged mainstream American values. Female tramps challenged gender norms, while male tramps were supposedly lazy criminals who repudiated the American work ethic. Considering these culturally-entrenched negative perceptions of the itinerant poor, it’s understandable that Meg was worried when she heard about Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets.

Apart from this reference to “tramp” in A Wrinkle in Time and the occasional mention of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or the similarly titled show tune, I rarely come across the term. If Google Books Ngram Viewer is any indication, though, it might be enjoying a small resurgence.

Tramp Graph

If so, I wonder what definition of “tramp” is on the rise.

11 thoughts on ““Mommy, What’s a Tramp?”

  1. bevalex

    Interesting and informative, as always. It’s probably worth noting that connotation (rather than denotation) is also communicated by tone and pitch when we pronounce a word, (not to mention body language and physiognomy). We can colour a word in this way, making it, for example, more or less derogatory.

  2. It’s interesting to think about words like this… I can remember my grandmother using this word a lot in the old way. If I read that passage with her voice in my mind, that’s the meaning I grab. But I read it with my voice, that’s not the first definition that comes to mind. (Am I making sense or just babbling? haha)

  3. I was surprised to ‘tramp’ in the original sense is widely used in the States – I’d have assumed ‘hobo’ was the common noun for a ‘knight of the road’. In fact the Ngram analysis for both words is quite similar.

    The old ‘respectable’ tramp who wandered from English place to place with his meagre belongings died out in the 60s I think. Homeless men have many more refuges in the towns and cities now. Even if they don’t use them there are easier pickings in the towns than out on the roads. In any case the all-pervasive motor vehicle has made any sort of peaceful wandering impossible.

  4. I suspect it may be in relation to the “War on Women” and Rush Limbaugh. He has frequently used the word in the sense of a licentious woman. For example, during the birth control debate, he used it for the women who wanted free birth control” so that they could party as they wanted to without fear of unwanted pregnancy.. What was old is made new again by those who seek to blame women for the ills of our society.

  5. It’s so strange to find all of these words and concepts that are tricky to explain that we don’t remember seeing when we read the book as a kid! I definitely didn’t remember that in A Wrinkle in Time!

    1. I don’t remember seeing it in A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid either! The context makes it clear that L’Engle was not referring to a “sexually promiscuous woman,” but it’s an odd word to see these days.

    1. The state of higher education is just so sad. Considering how many adjunct professors live below the poverty line and must move from location to location for work, I can see the comparison.

    1. Indeed. It’s hard to get solid data on homelessness, but to the extent we have some, the population has decreased a little in recent years (perhaps depending on what definition of “homeless” we use–I don’t know). But it is huge problem.

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