“He was sent to prison because one woman was rampant on the witness stand.”

I don’t know what this student meant. He was writing about a teenager who falsely accused a stranger of rape because she thought she was pregnant by her boyfriend and was trying to avoid blame. The case study the class wrote about notes that her “impassioned testimony” was enough to convince the jury despite a lack of other evidence. So maybe “rampant” found its way into this student’s essay by way of that passion.

“Rampant” lurks in my students’ wordstocks. For me it denotes that High-ho Silver stance so popular in heraldry, probably because the first time I ever looked the word up I was reading about some knight’s coat-of-arms; and the stance is the first definition in most dictionaries, followed by its heraldic application. But I don’t think this could be the meaning my students associate with it.

unicorn, rampant

Reading farther down in Webster‘s, I come to the figurative use: “marked by a menacing wildness, extravagance, or absence of restraint.” Then “widespread.” The final definition relates to architecture.

Well, the “widespread” may explain this statement: “Ever since The Journals were published, critical responses, according to Anderson, have been rampant.” Can we attribute this word choice to a thesaurus (print or electronic) carelessly used? That would seem to be the logical explanation here.

But it doesn’t explain “The betrayal becomes deeper and even more rampant.”

Of course for me, even though I sort of knew what these students meant, Silver waves his raised forelegs over every one of these sentences—although he doesn’t show up when I hear or write the common phrase “runs rampant,” except as a hoofbeat sound effect under the wild running.

I imagine most of my students have heard this phrase, “runs rampant.”

Why, then, when a student had a perfectly good chance to use it, did she write “‘His imagination runs rapid”?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

6 responses to ““He was sent to prison because one woman was rampant on the witness stand.”

  • Elizabeth Hilts

    Why do we do this?

  • Elizabeth Hilts

    Continue to attempt to make sens of this sort of writing, even though it does seem to be all for naught.

    • RAB

      Maybe it’s the Nancy Drew in all of us. Follow the clue–the Password to Larkspur Lane?
      I don’t mind trying to decipher it, and I like being able to show ways to clarify it (most of the time). What I wish, though, is that there were some way to inoculate against it, short of asking them to start their lives over again and do some reading and thinking along the way. I don’t think American society supports heavy reading and genuine critical discussion anymore. In fact, when a student in my very first freshman class, back in ’70 or ’71, got excited about literature and began to read everything he could get his hands on, his roommate asked him to move out because “you’re no damned fun anymore, with your nose in a book all the time”….

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Could “rampant” have been confused with “adamant”? The adjective would fit the quality of the delivery of the testimony–and have the right sound to it.

    • RAB

      An interesting possibility. I do prefer to picture her standing up in the box with her hands in the air and one hoof raised, though…or running amok with passion….
      Seriously, not sure if “adamant” is likely to have been in the student’s mind here (or generally), but it would fit, and it shares some letters.

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