Leg in the door.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the slang term “gams” for women’s legs originate? — B.D.

That’s a good question, and it just gave me an idea (oh no, here he goes again).  If we can have a “Talk Like a Pirate Day” every September 19th (and apparently we can), why can’t we have a “Talk Like a Gumshoe Day” every year?  It would be much more fun than just peppering every sentence with “Avast!” and “Arrgh!”  We could use words like “gat” and “stiff” and “heater” and “patsy”!  We could wear trench coats and fedoras!  What’s not to like?

There are actually three “gams” in English, and they all have separate sources.  The oldest is of Scottish origin, is used only in the plural, and means “‘large teeth or tusks.”  This usage first appeared around 1500, and seems to be largely defunct, although the use of “gam” to mean “mouth” in general was still in use in the 19th century.  The origin of this “gam” is uncertain, but it may be related to the Scots word “gamp,” meaning “to eat greedily.”

The second sort of “gam,” dating to the mid-19th century, means “a herd or school of whales” (or, by extension, “a social meeting of whalers at sea”).  This “gam” is thought to be a dialectical variant of the familiar English word “game,” probably drawn from the playful behavior of a group of whales.

All of which brings us to the third kind of “gams,” slang for a woman’s legs, especially if regarded as attractive.  “Gam” in this sense probably reminds most people of the “noir” crime novels and films of the 1930s and 40s and the hardboiled patois of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (“The gams!  The gams!  Your face ain’t news!”, Mildred Pierce, 1941).  But “gam” in this sense is actually considerably older than Sam Spade, dating back to at least the late 18th century.  And “gam,” which began as underworld slang, originally referred to the leg of either sex, and not necessarily an attractive one.

There are two theories about the origin of “gam” meaning “leg.”  The shorter and more straightforward one simply traces it to the Italian word “gamba,” also meaning “leg.”

The other theory treads the same ground, but with a detour, tracing “gam” to the old word “gamb,” meaning the representation of a leg on a coat of arms, which comes from the French “gambe,” a close cousin of that Italian “gamba.”  Interestingly, another form of “gambe” in French was “jambe,” which gave us our modern English word “jamb,” as in “door jamb,” the supporting side pieces of a door frame.  The connection between a door “jamb” and the “leg” meaning of “gam” and its relatives may seem murky, but the “jambs” were named because they serve as “legs” supporting the lintel, the piece at the top of the door frame.  Even a door frame, it seems, needs legs to stand on.

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