Don’t tread on me

The difference between "trample" and "trammel"

The requirement of the Affordable Care Act that employers provide access to free contraceptives “trammels the right of free exercise” of religion, a federal judge wrote.

A reader asked: “Didn’t the judge mean trample, as in ‘trample on the rights’?”

No, the judge meant “trammel.” The difference between the two words is important.

As a verb, “trammel” means to constrain or hinder. “Trample” means step heavily upon, crush, or treat with disrespect. Had the judge written “trample,” the image would be of someone’s religious freedom being stomped into the dust, a much more violent and damaging treatment of the freedom of religion. Instead, the ruling said that the federal requirement to provide contraception impeded the rights of religious freedom, not denies it. It’s the difference between tying someone up (trammel) and crushing someone to death (trample).

It’s not surprising that people are less familiar with “trammel” than with “trample.” A look at usage of both words over the centuries shows that “trample” has always been far more popular than “trammel.”

While usage of both has dropped off considerably, “trample” has surged since 2000, while “trammel” gets only a small bump. And “trammel” must once have been a more familiar word to the reading public: It appears several times a year inThe New York Times of the mid-1800s, but only a few times so far this century, most in legal contexts.

“Trammel” arose from an Old French word for a net with three layers, tramail, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. Even today, “trammel nets” are used: “The fish enters through the large mesh on one side, drives the fine netting through the large mesh on the other, and is thus trapped in a pocket or bag of the fine netting,” the OED says. Other “trammels” are hobbles to restrain a horse or to teach it proper gaits, a mechanism for suspending a pot over a fire, or, in olden days, the hopper of a mill.

As a verb, “trammel” in the mid-1500s meant “to bind a corpse,” the OED says, but Shakespeare was the first to use it in a non-physical sense, where Macbeth muses:

if the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success;

“Trammel,” like “trample,” can be an intransitive verb, meaning it does not need a direct object (“Do you trammel with a three-layer net?”), as well as transitive, needing an object (“The farrier trammels the horse before shoeing it”). American English uses a single “l” for other forms, like “trammeling,” while the British use “trammelling.”

The more people use “trammel,” the less hobbled will be their understanding of some of the nuances of English.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.