Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Prams of one sort or other

Further to Bayan time (16): Strange moments (concerning the use of a pram to transport my bayan), "Trebots" from kalebeul drew my attention to a band of Birmingham origins called Pram.

From their sampler on MySpace -  they describe themselves as Alternative / Experimental / Progressive - they're very good. They remind me a lot of the Icelandic group múm I mentioned a while back. Their official website - - which particularly accompanies their 2007 album The Moving Frontier,  is a work of art as Flash animation, presenting the album contents and band details as flippable pages in a quaintly archaic book.

It begins with a series of definitions of "pram",  including one I didn't know. From the OED:
pram (noun)
a. An open, flat-bottomed boat or lighter, used esp. in the Baltic and the Netherlands for shipping cargo.
b. A large, flat-bottomed boat mounted with guns and used as a floating battery. Now hist.
a. A ship's boat. Now rare.
b. Chiefly U.S. A very small, flat-bottomed, square-bowed boat, used with sails or oars, esp. as a fishing boat
- Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, March 2007; online version March 2012
The OED tracks the etymology back to Czech prám ("The term was perhaps originally borrowed from Czech by sailors on the upper Elbe") from which cognates spread all across seafaring nations in north-west Europe, and eventually to Dutch and English.

Although "pram" in the sense of "baby carriage" is generally accepted as being an abbreviation of "perambulator" (including by the OED) the similarity of function - a flat-bottomed transportation device - does make me suspect that "pram" in the nautical sense helped the abbreviation into existence. The Online Etymology Dictionary agrees about this possibility:
baby carriage, 1884, shortening of perambulator, perhaps influenced by pram "flat-bottomed boat" (1540s), from O.N. pramr, from Balto-Slavic (cf. Pol. prom, Rus. poromu "ferryboat").
There can't be many writers who have explored the analogies between the two kinds of pram, but the traveller James Arthur Lees did:
They went to sea in a sieve, they did,
In a sieve they went to sea.
In spite of all their friends could say,
On the shortest night and the longest day,
They sailed away from Christiansand
To Flekkefjord and Listerland,
And the place where the Fiske be.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lakes where the Fiske live.
The trout are pink, and the waters blue,
And they went to sea in a sieve.
- Old Ballad.

So we walked down to the harbour-side, and bought a pram. Now the pram of Norway must by no means be confounded with the English vessel which bears the same name. This, as every one knows, is generally to be found cruising in Kensington Gardens, or anchored bow and stern on the pavement in front of any bonnet shop, and is navigated by a mixed crew of nursemaid, life-guardsman, and—when it has not fallen out unobserved—the baby; the last-named being the most energetic of the three.

The Norwegian pram, on the contrary, is usually mannned by a woman with a pair of sculls, and is kept afloat by the strenuous exertions of two or three males, armed with hats or boots or any other handy substitutes for the forgotten baling- tin. It is built entirely of wood, the boards being fastened with rough pegs instead of nails ; there is no keel, but the bottom is rounded rather like an English "whisket " or garden basket, and it slopes upwards to a high flat-nosed bow overhanging the water something after the fashion of a Thames punt. The joints are at first a little defective, and it is likely that if you drop your knife or sketch-book, it may fall through one of the chinks ; but after filling up the worst places with your handkerchief and socks and pieces of moss, it becomes fairly watertight, and can be used with comparative safety by any expert swimmer.

- Chapter 1, The Voyage of the “Pram”, Peaks and Pines: another Norway book, James Arthur Lees, 1899
It's an interesting passage, both for its paraphrase of Edward Lear's The Jumblies and its use of the introductory "So" (commonly maligned, by people who don't read older books, as some modern barbarism) and Lees looks an interesting writer. While I had to hack the above extract from Google Books snippet view, two other of his late-1800s comic travelogues, co-written with Walter J Clutterbuck, are available in full on the Internet Archive: Three in Norway by Two of Them (ID threeinnorwayby00clutgoog); and B. C., 1887. A Ramble in British Columbia (ID bc1887rambleinbr00lees). They read rather like Three Men in a Boat - if the three men were self-deprecating confident adventurers (sailing from Hull) exploring northern wildernesses rather than the Thames.

Addendum: I find on further reading that the works of Clutterbuck and Lees have been credited (see the Wikipedia citation #3) as an inspiration for Jerome's book. And they have British Columbian mountains named after them: see The Clutterbuck Blog.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Since you're collecting, I'd like to contribute the Partido Revolucionario Abril y Mayo (PRAM), which cheered up San Salvador briefly 50 years ago.

    Much of my repertoire raiding for the barrel organ is over at WFMU, but there are cool places even they don't go very much - múm is one.