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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) chaos or disorder caused by being overtired

When you’re in a disorganized muddle for no reason other than that you’re dog-tired, then you’re in a state of ramfeezlement.

It’s a state probably familiar to most people—but a word that’s likely very unfamiliar.

Some of you out there, however, will have heard the similar word ramfeezled before, which is a perennial favourite of viral lists of weird words; it means simply ‘exhausted’, or ‘confused’. To ramfeezle something, likeiwse, is to throw it into disarray, turn it topsy-turvy, disorder it, upset it, or in some way ruin it completely.

Ramfeezle is a Scots word (like all the best ones), and is popularly said to have been invented by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. In his Second Epistle To J. Lapraik (1785), Burns wrote of a “tapetless, ramfeezl’d hizzie”—a hizzie being a young woman, and tapetless being an adjective, meaning ‘heedless’ or ‘unthinking’. So here we have a girl overworked to the point of unthinking exhaustion; as Burns goes on, the girl exclaims, “Ye ken, we’ve been sae busy / This month an’ mair, / That, trowth, my head is grown right dizzie!”

So did Burns really coin the word, or was it already in use when he set it down on paper nearly 250 years ago? It’s really impossible to tell without any earlier evidence, but his poem is certainly the earliest record of the word ramfeezle that we know about.

Etymologically, the word itself is one of a number of excellently evocative Scots words that use the prefix ram–. So as well as being ramfeezled, you can be ramgunshoch (‘bad-tempered’), rambusteous (‘boisterous’), ramskeerie (‘lustful’), ramstageous (‘uncouth’), ramstoorie (‘slapdash, frivolous’) and ramsheuchet (‘dishevelled’).

In all these words, ram– is an intensifier—an example of a word-building unit sometimes called a ‘booster’ prefix. We have similar units to this one in English, like the ‘a–’ in amaze, the ‘for–’ in forsooth, and the ‘be–’ in bestill, becloud, bedazzle, bespatter and bespeckle. Each of these someone accentuates or intensifies the root to which it is attached—so saying that something is bespattered rather than simply spattered seems to make us imagine that it is more thoroughly or markedly stained.

This is precisely what the ‘ram–’ in ramfeezle does. As for where it came from itself, that’s something of a mystery too—though there is a plausible theory that it’s somehow related to rum, which can be used in English to mean ‘thoroughly’, ‘very’, or ‘excellently’. (In the case of ramskeerie in particular, however, there seems to be some kind of crossover between this and the relevantly lustful behaviour of an actual ram...)

As for the ‘–feezle’ part, that’s just as problematic. There is a Scots word feezle, meaning ‘to wriggle’ or ‘move jerkily’, but it seems to be a later development. There’s also a word foozle, meaning ‘to waste your time’—and several records of ramfeezled being spelled ramfoozled—but these too appear to be later inventions, with the Scottish National Dictionary recording ramfoozled no earlier than 1887.

A more plausible theory here is that ramfeezled comes from another old Scots dialect word feeze. Although it originally meant simply ‘to twist’ or ‘knot’, or ‘to move in a circular motion’ (and probably has its roots in an even earlier Scots word for a screw), it later came to be used more loosely to mean both ‘to become unfrayed’, and ‘to work incessantly’ (apparently an allusive reference to the nonstop circular movement of a dog’s wagging tail).

That sense development seems to match with what we’ve got here, so it’s likely this might have inspired the very first ramfeezlement.

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