I first saw the word “vote-a-rama” a week ago Wednesday, when it appeared in a CNN headline, after the covid relief bill passed in the Senate: “Bill Passes After All-Night Vote-a-rama”. I knew that the process of voting had been delayed and took many hours, and I supposed that the word “vote-a-rama” must refer somehow to the prolonged process of voting, which was delayed by various obstructions and negotiations and compromises. I’m not sure why the suffix “a-rama” means a prolonged process, if indeed that’s what it means. Perhaps it means that it was a big deal, or difficult, or something like that.

A little research taught me that this word goes back at least to March 25, 2015, when Politico used the word in the headline of a story about a lengthy budget vote. They put the word in quotation marks, but they don’t attribute the quote to anyone in particular, so I don’t know who invented it.

The word “vote-a-rama” belongs to a group of words ending in “rama”. For instance, there’s Cinerama, which is a widescreen projection process; there’s Cyclorama, which is another projection process; there’s Dollarama, which is a chain of budget stores; there’s scoutorama, which is a big scouting event; also camporama, a similar kind of camping event; and there’s Casino Rama, which is a gambling resort in Ontario. Some of these words are fairly recent inventions, but cyclorama goes back to 1787, when the Irish painter Robert Barker set up a cylindrical room with paintings of a landscape all around the 360 degrees, in order to create the illusion of looking at a landscape from every perspective. The word panorama goes back to 1791, as a synonym for cyclorama; now a panorama more generally is a wide-angle view of a landscape, or in a metaphorical usage, of pretty much anything. The word diorama goes back to 1823 in English and 1822 in French. I won’t go into the details of the original diorama, which was invented in 1822 by Louis Daguerre and Charles Marie Bouton to show a changing or moving image; now the word usually means a three-dimensional model.

I also discovered, much to my surprise, a fascinating passage in Honoré de Balzac’s great novel Père Goriot, which was first published in 1835. (I use the English translation by A. J. Krailsheimer, Oxford 1991.) The whole passage is a couple of pages, so I won’t quote all of it. This passage takes place in the boarding house, the Maison Vacquer, where Père Goriot and Rastignac live. Balzac starts with an interesting discussion of slang in general:

“The boarders, residents and non-residents, came in one by one, exchanging greetings and those trifles which, in certain circles in Paris, pass for wit, though their main component is foolishness, and their merit consists above all in gesture and pronunciation. This sort of slang changes all the time. The catchword on which it is based never lasts more than a month. A political event, a high Court trial, a street song, an actor’s antics, anything can provide material for this form of humour which consists above all in taking ideas and words like shuttlecocks and batting them to and fro. The recent invention of the Diorama, carrying optical illusion a stage further than the Panoramas, had prompted the comic practice in some artists’ studios of adding “rama” to words and a young painter who frequented the Maison Vacquer had injected the infection there.” (45)

(Here’s the French for the last sentence: “La récente invention du Diorama, qui portait l’illusion de l’optique à un plus haut degré que dans les Panoramas, avait amené dans quelques ateliers de peinture la plaisanterie de parler en rama, espèce de charge qu’un jeune peintre habitué de la pension Vauquer, y avait inoculée.)

And in the following conversation among the boarders, we find the words “santérama” (“healthorama”), “froidorama” (“coldorama”), and “soupeaurama” (“souporama”). So the fashion for forming “rama” words is nothing new.

The words diorama and panorama are clearly based on root words in Ancient Greek. The word “pan” means “all” or “everything” and the word “dia” means a lot of different things, but maybe the relevant meaning here is “through”. The word “(h)orama” (ὅραμα) in Ancient Greek means “a thing seen”. (The “h” is in parentheses because it wasn’t considered a letter in itself, but a quality that was either added (“rough breathing”) or not added (“smooth breathing”) to an initial vowel.) The word “orama” is formed from the Greek verb “(h)oraô”, which means “to see”, and the derivational suffix “-ma”, which turns a verb into a noun—more specifically it indicates the result of an action. (As a technical footnote, the suffix “-ma” is actually “-mat-”, as you can see in some of the plurals: “stigma/stigmata”.) So the word “panorama” breaks down “pan-ora-ma”, and it means, roughly, “everything-see-thing”. There is no verb “panorao” or noun “panorama” in Greek, but there is a verb “diorao”, which means “to see through” or “to discern”.

CNN spelled the word “vote-a-rama” with hyphens, which clearly show how they think the word divides. Note also that the “o” in “orama” has been changed to “a”, probably to assimilate with the two “a”s in “rama”. Balzac, in 1835, talks about words ending in “rama”, not “orama”. A number of the recent formations clearly take the suffix to be “rama”, for instance “Cinerama” and “Casino Rama”. “Dollorama” seems to be formed from “dollar” and “rama”, with the two “r”s merging. The words “panorama” and “diorama” retain the meaning of the root verb, but the others, including the ones made up by Balzac, don’t have anything to do with seeing. It’s hard to see one particular thing that “rama” means. I suppose many of the words are trying to suggest something really big or otherwise special, but that’s the best I can come up with.

I mentioned above that the word “(h)orama” is made of a verb root, “(h)ora-”, plus a derivational suffix, “-ma”, which turns a verb into a noun. So if “(h)oraô” means “to see”, the noun “(h)orama” means a thing which is seen. Lots of Greek verbs use this suffix to create nouns, and quite a few of these derived nouns have made their way into English.

“drama” comes from the verb “draô”, which means “to do”. In Greek the word “drama” means “a deed” or “something that is done”, and thus a play, which presents actions on stage, as opposed to epic, which just tells about the actions of the story rather than presenting them.

“dogma” comes from the verb “dokeô”, which means “to think”, so a dogma is what you think or what you should think. Notice that the “k” of the verb turns into “g” in the noun; “dogma” is just easier to say than “dokma”; the “g” is a partial assimilation to the “m”.

“charisma” comes from the verb “kharizdomai” (χαρίζομαι), which means “to show kindness; to be pleasing or agreeable”; in Greek the noun “charisma” (χαρίσμα) means “a favor, a free gift”; in older English, charisma is a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. In 1922 the German sociologist Max Weber used the word to mean “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”, and that’s where the modern English meaning comes from.

“trauma” comes from the verb “titrôskô”; it’s complicated to explain exactly how the verb form gives the noun form, but trust me, it does. In ancient Greek a trauma is primarily a physical wound, or any kind of physical damage, such as damage to a ship. We still do use the word to mean a physical wound—a hospital will have a trauma center—but we also use it to mean a psychological wound.

“diploma” comes from the verb “diploô”, which means “to fold double”. The Greek “diploma” meant a piece of paper folded double and particularly a letter of recommendation—I suppose the paper was folded double and then sealed, so the person recommended wouldn’t be able to read it; it could also mean any kind of official document. A diplomat is a person who deals with official documents, and diplomacy is what diplomats do. Diplomatics is the historical and philological study of official documents.

“kerygma” comes from the verb “kêryssô”, which means “to proclaim”. In ancient Greek the noun meant “a public proclamation”; in the New Testament it took on the specific meaning of “the apostolic proclamation of salvation”, and that’s what it means in English today.

“miasma” comes from the verb “miainô”, which means “to stain” or “to pollute”, because a pollution is a kind of metaphorical stain. In English it usually means an unpleasant and perhaps harmful fog, for instance in swampy areas.

“stigma” comes from the verb “stizdô”, which means “to prick” or “to puncture” or “to brand cattle”; the noun “stigma” meant a mark made by pricking, and then generally any kind of mark or spot. In English the word means a mark, perhaps metaphorical, of shame or disgrace. The “stigmata” were the marks of the crucifixion left on Jesus’ hands and feet, which he showed to the disciple Thomas (“doubting Thomas”; see John 20:24–29).    

In addition, “asthma” comes from the verb “asthmainô”, which means “to breath hard, to gasp for breath”; “eczema” comes from the verb “ek-zeô”, which means “to boil over” or “to break out in boils”; “plasma” comes from the verb “plassô”, which means “to mold or to form”; and “zeugma” comes from the verb “zeugnumi”, which means “to yoke together”; “cinema” is a modern word which comes from the Greek verb “kineô”, which means “to move”.

There is also a group which use the lengthened suffix “-oma”, as in “carcinoma” or “blastoma” or “melanoma”. I’ve checked only a few of these, but many seem to be medical terms invented in modern times. (The etymology of the word “glaucoma” is disputed, but I tentatively take it from “glaukos”, meaning “gray”, and “omma”, meaning “eye”, so it’s the disease that clouds the eyes and makes them look gray.)

And just to complicate the situation, some English words in the class of “-ma” words have dropped the final “a”, though it may be retained in other languages. The word “problem” (πρόβλημα in Greek) is derived from “pro+ballo+ma” (in Spanish it’s “problema”); the verb “ballô” means to throw, so a problem is an obstacle, something thrown in front of you that you trip over. The word “phlegm” (“flegma” in Spanish) comes from the verb “phlego”, which means “to burn”; phlegm was thought to be the result of a fever, a burning in the body. The word “baptism” (βάπτισμα in Greek) comes from the verb “baptizdo”, which means “to dip” or “to dunk”. The word “chasm” (χάσμα in Greek) comes from the verb “khainô” (χαίνω), which means “to gape, to yawn”. Other words in this category include “emblem”, “sperm”, “spasm”, and “sarcasm”.

The problem with doing etymology is that one thing leads to another which leads to another which leads to another. Now I want to talk about “chasm” and “chaos”, or about “phlegm” and “phlox” and “flame”, or about “sperm” and “sporadic” and “diaspora”. But these will have to wait for another time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s