Saturday, March 05, 2011

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!


In my Cincinnati version of Words to the Wise last week on WMKV-fm, someone asked about the word rumble, as in “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that a similar word shows up in many allied languages: Dutch, German, Frisian, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. In all cases, the word in its many forms is credited to onomatopoeia. This means that the word is spelled in imitation of a sound—in this case, a rumbling sound.

The first meaning given for the noun [1405] is “a low, continuous, murmuring, grumbling, or growling sound, as that of thunder, distant cannon, heavy vehicles, etc.” From the very start, a parallel figurative meaning arose: any uproar, commotion, or tumult. By 1946, it had evolved into American slang for a street fight between rival gangs. A classic example is presented in West Side Story.


In the centuries between, a number of other meanings developed for rumble.

  • A severe blow [1434].
  • The hind part of a carriage that contains seating accommodations or is used to carry luggage [1808]. In cars, it was called a rumble seat.
  • A rotating box or cask in which iron articles are shaken and cleaned by friction [1843].
  • Criminal slang for an alarm or tip-off [1911].
  • In sound reproduction, low-frequency noise originating as mechanical vibration in a turntable [1949].
  • Colloquially, a rumor [1961].

In the 1960s, many towns and municipalities began to install rumble strips, tiny ridges on a road that produce a whining sound when a car passes over them. They signal a crossroad ahead or some other approaching hazard.

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