Yesterday I found out that my wife and I will be hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park later this summer. (Pray for us in the hour of our need.) Yosemite being John Muir’s neck of the woods, I thought about a quotation about hiking that is often attributed to Muir:
“I don’t like either the word [hiking] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike!
“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
This quotation doesn’t actually appear in John Muir’s writings. It comes in an anecdote told by an Albert Palmer his 1911 book, The Mountain Trail and Its Message. But it got me to thinking about where we got the words hike and saunter and other walking-related words.
I was a little surprised to see that the aforementioned Albert Palmer put the word hikers in quotation marks in 1911, as if it were a new word that his readers would be unfamiliar with:
There are always some people in the mountains who are known as “hikers.” They rush over the trail at high speed and take great delight in being the first to reach camp and in covering the greatest number of miles in the least possible time. they measure the trail in terms of speed and distance.
But sure enough, the word hike doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—completed in 1928—though it does appear in the 1933 supplement: “to march or walk laboriously or vigorously; to tramp. In recent use, to tramp for pleasure; to go for a long walk, tramp, or walking tour.”
The origin of the word hike is uncertain, but it seems possible that it is related to the fox-hunting exclamation “yike,” or “yoick,” which you might yell at your dogs to get them to take off. Etymonline.com quotes the following definition from the 1830 Vocabulary of East Anglia:
HIKE, v. to go away. It is generally used in a contemptuous sense. Ex. “Come, hike,” i.e. take yourself off; begone.
Which suggests that the now old-fashioned jibe “Why don’t you go take a hike?” may predate our current notion of “taking a hike” as something one might do voluntarily.
Even more interesting (though equally obscure) are the proposed origins of saunter. This article from etymonline.com explains why Muir (assuming Palmer quoted him accurately) had his etymology wrong. Samuel Johnson suggested that saunter might have derived from that phrase aller à la sainte terre, but for a different reason than Muir seemed to think. In Johnson’s account, the original sainte-terre-ers were “people who roved about the country, and asked charity under pretence of going à la sainte terre, to the holy land, or sans terre, as having no settled home.” So the saunterer, in Johnson’s account, is not the pilgrim making his way to the Holy Land and reverently taking in the marvels as he goes, but a charlatan hoping to benefit from false piety, or perhaps simply a person without land of his own (sans terre)—a homeless person, a vagrant (and vagrant, as you might know, derives from the Latin for wandering). Vagabond comes from the same root.
The etymonline.com article goes into a little more detail about saunter, ultimately concluding that the word’s origins are obscure.
The word stroll is pretty respectable these days. Nobody will fault you for strolling; even Jane Austen’s characters stroll about. But when it first came into our language, it derived from the German strolch, or “vagabond.” To stroll, according to the OED, originally meant to roam about from place to place without a settled habitation. It has been suggested that the German strolch might be connected to the Italian astrologo, as in a wandering fortune-teller. I don’t know if real etymologists take that idea seriously, but it fires the imagination, doesn’t it?
When you meander, you move along a winding course like that of the Meander, a famously winding river in ancient Greece (now Turkey). When you sashay, you move with a swinging motion that is reminiscent of the chassé, a dance step that takes its name from the French chasser, to hunt. The idea, if I understand it, is that in this step you gallop like a hunting horse…or perhaps you gallop like you’re getting chased by a hunting horse?
The word amble seems pretty unassuming, but it’s about as Latinate as you can get. It comes directly from the Latin ambulare, to walk. If you’re British, you’ll walk your baby around in a perambulator, or pram. And, as we have learned, that’s a big improvement over a stroller, in which your baby may be mistaken for a vagabond or possibly an astrologer.
Let’s wrap up with the word pedestrian, which has a short but wacky history. Pedestrianism was the sport of competitive race-walking; it was a wildly popular spectator event in the 1870s and 80s. There was betting. There were corporate sponsorships. There were performance-enhancing drugs. The whole thing sounds like an April Fool’s joke, but apparently it’s not. I encourage you to read all about it (and/or listen all about it) in this NPR story.
Before the sport of pedestrianism, the word pedestrian usually meant “dull” or “unimaginative,” a definition that is still very much in use. The use of pedestrian as a noun describing a walker wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t common either. But a few decades after the rage for pedestrianism came and went, automobiles began showing up, and we suddenly needed a word to describe people not in automobiles. That’s when the noun pedestrian finally came into its own.
Pedestrians (formerly known as “people”) were an inconvenience to automobile drivers, which meant they were an inconvenience to automobile manufacturers. So automobile manufacturers manufactured a misdemeanor (and also a word) called jaywalking (formerly known as “walking”). A jaywalker, presumably, is impudent, cocky, and possibly foolish, like a jaybird. So in a public-relations tour de force, auto manufacturers managed to shame a person crossing the street the way he had always crossed the street—indeed, the way everyone had ever crossed the street from time immemorial—as not only a minor criminal, but also as an impudent fool. You can read all about it in this article from Vox.com: “The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking.'”