A Streetcar Named Desire*

*a play written by Tennessee Williams that was first performed on Broadway on December 3, 1947. (Wikipedia): “The Desire Line ran from 1920 to 1948, at the height of streetcar use in New Orleans. The route ran down Royal, through the Quarter, to Desire Street in the Bywater district, and back up to Canal. Blanche’s route in the play—”They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”—is allegorical, taking advantage of New Orleans’s colorful street names: the Desire line itself crossed Elysian Fields Avenue on its way to Canal Street. There, one could transfer to the Cemeteries line, which ran along Canal, blocks away from Elysian Fields.”

Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, wrote at blog.oup.com on 5.8.2009:

“…The real, rather than folk, etymology of tram, first recorded in the middle of the 15th century, is more complicated, but some basic facts have been discovered. The word is, apparently, of northern descent. It was a local name for a special wagon; hence tramway “the road on which this wagon ran.” In coal-mining, a tram was a frame or truck for carrying coal baskets. The shaft of a barrow was also called a tram, and in the Scandinavian languages all kinds of things called tram, tromm, etc. are made of wood too. That is why Skeat suggested that the original “tramroad” was a log road. Low (= northern) German treme means a “doorstep” (thus, another object made of wood), and some other words beginning with tr-, such as German Treppe “doorstep” (perhaps allied to Engl. trap), may be “obscurely or distantly related” to tram. This is what etymologists say when faced with a mass of near synonyms looking similar but not similar enough to qualify as congeners.

Latin trabs “beam” seems to belong here too, but it can be akin to Treppe and its likes only if at one time they began with th (such is the rule: compare Latin tres versus Engl. three), but th changed to d in the continental Scandinavian languages and German, while in German d was often confused with t, so that in the Germanic group one has to look for thram, tram, and dram as possible cognates of tram, and this complicates matters. Trabs and trap end in b ~ p and may be of some interest in discussion of tram only if we are dealing not with real cognates but with sound imitative nouns and verbs of the tread and tramp type, in which almost any combination of vowels and consonants is able to reproduce some noise. In case all these tr– words in the Indo-European languages go back to the sound of a tool interacting with wood (to knocking on wood, as it were), an etymological family, or rather a foster home, emerges. Granting affinity to its inhabitants may take us too far. It is therefore safer to say that tram is a word of either northern German or Scandinavian provenance whose earliest meaning was “a wooden object” (with specifications). Shafts, beams, doorsteps, wagons, and logs will feel at ease in its company. When trams were put on iron sleepers, the old name remained. This is a usual case. Compare pen, originally “feather,” though no one has been using quills for more than a century and a half, and even fountain pens are now antiques.”

See also


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