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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

ramp up

(1990’s | enginese | “turn up,” “increase gradually,” now “beef up,” “speed up,” “increase suddenly”)

It’s not often my daily paper, Newsday, gives me such fine fodder. The expression “ramp up” occurred twice in its pages within a week recently, both times in headlines. First, on June 29, “NYPD ramps up security.” And on July 4: “In fourth gear: Pyrotechnic crews ramp up for tonight’s fireworks.” One transitive, one intransitive, if you’re keeping score. The first meaning “step up” (as glossed in the first line of the article); the second, more like “rev up.” This phrase has become quite common in the last twenty years and taken on numerous shades of meaning, but it is really much older.

“Ramp” (verb) comes from an old French word that meant “to creep,” and it was first used in English to mean exactly that. So “ramp up” meant “creep up,” like ivy on a tree trunk. Within a couple of hundred years, “ramp” was influenced by the word “rampant” and came to mean “rear” (like a horse), or “act boisterously and violently” (like rampage). The idea of climbing remained in the former sense, and you could still find many instances of the latter use as late as the mid-twentieth century, although I don’t think you hear it much any more. For many hundreds of years, those were the possibilities — a pretty fair range. Our nominal use, meaning “inclined walkway or roadway,” also originated long ago in architecture.

Forty or fifty years ago, “ramp up” developed a specialized sense in the engineering and scientific communities, where it signified “increase predictably.” Although the idea of a gradual increase was usually implicit, it wasn’t necessary. The point was you could control how fast the speed of a given process increased. You could fix it so it increased at a constant rate or jumped to new rates at specified time intervals. Business executives started to adopt the phrase in the early 1980’s, using it in a generally similar way to talk about production of manufactured goods. We’re gonna need to start making more of this stuff, so let’s make a plan to increase production at predictable rates until we meet projected demand. In both the enginese and businese usages, accompanying noun (as in “the ramp-up to next quarter’s goal”) and adjective usages (“ramp-up period”) arose more or less at the same time as the verb. A companion expression, “ramp down,” also entered enginese and even businese, but has not made it into general usage.

In the early 1980’s, there was an important debate in Congress and the oil industry over whether and how to remove government limits on energy prices, and for a couple of years there, when the phrase appeared in any of its parts of speech, it appeared in articles about this debate, or so suggests LexisNexis. It strikes me as rather unusual for a single question, discussed and resolved in a relatively short period, to have a decisive effect in the spread of a new expression into everyday language, but that’s how I read the fossil record here.

Now you will see this expression used in nearly any context. “Get up to speed” (intransitive), “increase,” as in “ramp up security” (transitive), “speed up” or “get busy” (intransitive) as in “sales have to ramp up,” or in a headline like “NATO ramps up attacks in Libya” (St. Louis Dispatch, July 3, 2011) which seems to combine the latter two meanings — there is a larger number of attacks and they are more frequent. The sense of “increase production” is still current, used both transitively and intransitively. Now, before our eyes, the phrase is acquiring the sense of “increase quickly or suddenly,” nearly the opposite of its former meaning (although perhaps an echo of the much older sense of “rampage”), and I wonder if it will shed the sense of “slow and gradual.” “Ramp up” is not so unusual in its rapid spread both in frequency of use and in number of meanings. That’s what you get when people use words because they sound cool rather than because they’re right: vagueness supplants precision.

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