Perambulation

Post #3 of NaBloPoMo in May 2010. This month’s theme is: Look Up

When I’m reading any kind of text written in English (novel, website, newspaper article) and stumble upon a word or expression I don’t know, I usually try to deduce the meaning from the context in which the word/expression appears. I seldom look up those words in a dictionary. Mostly because I usually don’t carry one around with me, while I’m reading a novel on the train or when I’m lying in my bed ;-)

Sometimes I can’t figure out the meaning on my own though and that’s when online dictionaries or any other kind of online resource are a huge help. How did we actually cope without the internet in the early 1990s or prior to that? I guess I could write quite a few “Look Up” posts about this issue and I actually might do that. Because even though sometimes the unknown word might have been found in a “real” dictionary on my shelf, it still might not make much sense in the special context. Perfect example (and the reason for this post in the first place) is the term “perambulation” in the latest Elizabeth George novel “This Body of Death” from the Inspector Lynley series. I have never read/heard that before and had just a slight idea what it could mean in German. The context is

“He’d been a student of the New Forest since coming to Hampshire, and after a decade he knew the Perambulation, its character and its heritage better than most natives.”

and I deduced something along the line of “area, region”. I was a bit startled by the capital P, but didn’t gave it much thought. So I looked up “perambulation, to perambulate”, with the result

to perambulate: 1. To walk through. 2. To inspect (an area) on foot.
perambulation: a walk around a territory (a parish or manor or forest etc.) in order to officially assert and record its boundaries

Mmmh. It still didn’t make 100% sense to me, because in this context it wasn’t about a walk around a territory. It was more like the territory itself. I didn’t thought about it any further though until this term appeared again several times later on in the story. So this time I decided to use the ultimate knowledge resource [and it’s kind of scary that I actually consider it as such]: Google. I typed in “Perambulation” and “New Forest”, because I was sure that otherwise I’d just get the dictionary explaination again and I was also sure that it had to be something special regional about the location the story is set in. And voila, it was indeed, like the New Forest National Park Website informed me:

“The 1964 New Forest Act defined the perambulation of the Forest, a term used to describe the official area boundary and land enclosed within. The picture below shows the New Forest perambulation (green), compared to today’s National Park (red)”

So it IS special term after all and therefore it had a capital P. But how on earth should I have found out about that with just an ordinary german encyclopedia ;-)?

3 Comments

    1. Even in the original sense “to perambulate” seemed rather oldfashioned (and maybe typical british) to me. So it’s a relief that you didn’t know the word either…

  1. Capitalisation doesn’t necessarily indicate a technical term – but it will most likely always denote something unique, at least something unique by context. In this case, there could be half a dozen Perambulations in any part of the world, but it would be a very specific one by context. Think of the term ‘labour’ (as a political party). It’s usually not capitalised if you’re on about the party concept, but it will be when you talk of it in specific reference: ‘Gordon Brown of the Labour party today announced…’

    Likewise, I’ve never heard of Perambulation – but I pretty much had the same notion when I first read your quote. Not too much guess work here, but Perambulation with ‘P’ derived most obviously from the more common concept realised with ‘p’. So, technically, you looking up the word actually confused your intuition :D

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