Try to clamor a bit less

What’s the image that comes into your head when you read the italicized word in the following sentence, which appeared recently on the OptionsMonster blog: “ICICI Bank is lighting up our scanners as investors clamber for exposure to international stocks.”

Do you see investors scrambling over obstacles to get to those international stocks?

“Clamber” means “to climb with effort or clumsily, esp. by using the hands as well as the feet,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary says. Is that what the investors were doing?

Said aloud, “clamber” sounds a lot like “clamor,” except that the “b” is supposed to be pronounced. “Clamor” means “cry out, demand, or complain noisily,” WNW says. That’s probably what the investors were doing: loudly seeking more exposure to international stocks.

“Clamber” as related to “climb” has been in use since the early 15th century. The Oxford English Dictionary notes a different contemporary meaning, now in disuse: “To mass or cluster together.”

The two words may have developed independently or through a close relationship with their meanings: “In German, klammer, ‘clam, clamp, hold-fast,’ etc., had formerly the sense ‘clutch, claw’; thence a derivative verb ‘to clutch, seize with claws’ comes naturally” to “clamber,” though the linguistic connection is not solid, the OED says, “Clamor,” on the other hand, was first used in the 14th century, the OED says, and comes from words meaning “to cry out.” The British spell it “clamour,” and probably mistake the two words less frequently than Americans do.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

While our example used “clamber” instead of what should probably have been “clamor,” the mistake usually goes the other way. Garner’s Modern American Usage says the misuse of “clamor” when “clamber” is meant is at Stage 1 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, or still something to shout down. “What’s the best way to stop this spreading error?” Garner’s asks. “Whenever you see or hear it, clamber up on a soapbox and clamor about it.”

Let’s take that a step further. We often talk about words that journalists love, but that are rarely heard in conversation. When was the last time you turned to a friend and said, “Let’s clamber up those rocks”? When did you hear a public official discuss the “clamor” being raised against a proposal under discussion? Of several thousand uses of “clamor” in six months of Nexis hits, only a fraction are contained in quotations; for the thousand or so uses of “clamber” in the same period, even fewer appear in quotations.

We’re not suggesting banning those words. But knowing they’re not as conversational as, say, “scramble” or “outcry,” it may be prudent to adapt Garner’s advice and try to clamor a bit less.

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.