Connotation of “Ram” vs “Cram”

By Maeve Maddox

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While browsing the web in search of royalty-free graphics, I came across a source described this way:

This site does not host one unattractive image, it is rammed full with outstanding landscapes and breath-taking scenes of nature.

What? Surely this blogger meant to say “crammed full.” Surely, no one else is confusing the verb ram with the similar verb cram, I thought.

ram: verb. to force or drive down or in by heavy blows.

cram: verb. to fill (a receptacle) with more than it properly or conveniently holds, by force or compression.

True, the action described by cram may include a certain amount of forcing, but the difference is that between pounding sand down a rat hole and mashing another T-shirt into a drawer.

As I always do when encountering a usage that strikes me as odd, I searched to see if other writers were using ram in contexts that I thought called for cram.

To my surprise, I found plenty of examples. Here are three.

We booked the Catalina Island trip instead with the local diving company. Much more exclusive and not rammed full of tourist boats.—Tripadvisor comment

In theory I’m lucky with storage. I have a lovely chest of drawers, another less lovely but perfectly functioning set of drawers and a large bookcase. All of course absolutely rammed full.
—Personal blog

Search Engine Land’s own Mobile SEO Search section is rammed full of useful posts – everything from mobilegeddon to ranking factors and app indexing.—Personal blog

Convinced that ram for cram was indeed a thing, my next destination was the Ngram Viewer. There I saw considerable activity for “rammed full” dating from 1800. However, as useful a tool as it is, the viewer does not distinguish between changed meanings. It is possible, however, to get a notion of when meanings changed by consulting the sources offered for different decades.

The Oxford English Dictionary does have this example written by Lady Bury in 1840: “I always ram my clothes into a box,” but the Ngram sources I consulted used ram for such actions as using a ramrod to load a firearm or using a hammer or other device to pound soil to make it firmer or to force a substance like sand into a cartridge or other industrial receptacle. The first uses of rammed in the sense of crammed that I noted begin to occur in the 1990s.

Evidence that I’m not the only one to question the use of ram in some contexts is the fact that, for at least one of my examples of ” misuse,” the Spelling and Grammar feature in Word flags “rammed” and suggests “crammed.”

Merriam-Webster’s ram entry gives crowd and cram as synonyms, but while these words are close in meaning, they do not connote the sense of fierce determination, anger, or violence that ram does.

The connotation of aggression and heavy pounding makes ram a popular figurative choice in a political context:

It will take the Senate only 10 hours to ram through the worst legislation in living memory.—The New Republic

. . . even by Oli’s own standards, choosing to ram through ordinances that have nothing to do with the handling of the current Covid-19 outbreak—in the middle of an extended and uncertain lockdown—is pushing it to a new low.—The Kathmandu Post

A year ago, the Ohio legislature rammed through a law to save four unprofitable nuclear and coal-fired power plants from retirement, while it rolled back energy efficiency and renewable targets and passed on the $1.3 billion cost to customers.—Mother Jones.

When used intransitively (no object) and followed by a prepositional phrase, the preposition that follows ram in these examples is through. If you find yourself placing with after rammed, crammed is probably the better choice.

Inspectors highlighted the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which was designed to hold 125 people but was crammed with 750 migrants on May 7 and 900 migrants the following day— USA Today.

Bad economy leads to shelters crammed with cats—Sky-Hi News
[The Guggenheim Museum] Crammed with Famous Works!—Tripadvisor

Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who, with a body filled and vacant mind,
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;—Shakespeare, Henry V, IV, i

Used transitively (with an object), the word that follows the verb identifies whatever is being rammed or crammed.

The builder then rams the soil and clay mixture to compress it.

The slumlord crams as many tenants into a unit as possible.

When the intended meaning is “filled to overflowing,” crammed or crowded will do the job.
If the intention is to suggest anger or fierce determination, go with rammed.

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1 Response to “Connotation of “Ram” vs “Cram””

  • Thomas Richardson

    Hi: I thought of one example in which both ram and cram work, but it is perhaps the overlap of two similar ideas. Rammed and crammed down one’s throat. I guess rammed implies success in the passage of the thing through the throat, while crammed implies that it is lodged there still. Since, one hopes, each is a figure of speech, the subtlety of meaning of having something rammed is that you’ve gotten past it and all that remains is the memory, and it being crammed, you have yet fully “to swallow” it.

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