A tramp is a long-term homeless person who travels from place to place as a vagrant, traditionally walking all year round.


Tramp is derived from a Middle English verb meaning to "walk with heavy footsteps" (cf. modern English trample) and to go hiking.

In Britain the term was widely used to refer to vagrants in the early Victorian period. The social reporter Henry Mayhew refers to it in his writings of the 1840s and 1850s. By 1850 the word was well established. In that year Mayhew described "the different kinds of vagrants or tramps" to be found in Britain, along with the "different trampers' houses in London or the country". He distinguished several types of tramps, ranging from young people fleeing from abusive families, through to people who made their living as wandering beggars and prostitutes.[1]

In the United States, the word became frequently used during the American Civil War, to describe the widely shared experience of undertaking long marches, often with heavy packs. Use of the word as a noun is thought to have begun shortly after the war. A few veterans had developed a liking for the "call of the road". Others may have been too traumatised by war time experience to return to settled life.[2]


Wanderers have existed since ancient times. The modern concept of the "tramp" emerges with the expansion of industrial towns in the early nineteenth century, with the consequent increase in migrant labor and pressure on housing. The common lodging house or "doss house" developed to accommodate transients. Urbanisation also led to an increase in forms of highly marginalized casual labor. Mayhew identifies the problem of "tramping" as a particular product of the economic crisis of the 1840s known as the Hungry Forties. John Burnett argues that in earlier periods of economic stability "tramping" involved a wandering existence, moving from job to job which was a cheap way of experiencing adventures beyond the "boredom and bondage of village life".[3]

The number of transient homeless people increased markedly in the U.S. after the industrial recession of the early 1870s. Initially, the term "tramp" had a broad meaning, and was often used to refer to migrant workers who were looking for permanent work and lodgings. Later the term acquired a narrower meaning, to refer only to those who prefer the transient way of life.[2] Writing in 1877 Allan Pinkerton said:

"The tramp has always existed in some form or other, and he will continue on his wanderings until the end of time; but there is no question that he has come into public notice, particularly in America, to a greater extent during the present decade than ever before."[4]

Author Bart Kennedy, a self-described tramp of 1900 America, once said "I listen to the tramp, tramp of my feet, and wonder where I was going, and why I was going."[5][6] John Sutherland (1989) said that Kennedy "is one of the early advocates of 'tramping', as the source of literary inspiration."[6]

The tramp became a character trope in vaudeville performance in the late 19th century in the United States. Lew Bloom claimed he was "the first stage tramp in the business".[7]

While tramps may do odd jobs from time to time, unlike other temporarily homeless people they do not seek out regular work and support themselves by other means such as begging or scavenging (see Waste picker). This is in contrast to:

  • bum, a stationary homeless person who does not work, and who begs for a living in one place.
  • hobo, a homeless person who travels from place to place looking for work, often by "freighthopping" (illegally catching rides on freight trains)
  • Schnorrer, a Yiddish term for a person who travels from city to city begging.

Both terms, "tramp" and "hobo" (and the distinction between them), were in common use between the 1880s and the 1940s. Their populations and the usage of the terms increased during the Great Depression. Like "hobo" and "bum," the word "tramp" is considered vulgar in American English usage, having been subsumed in more polite contexts by words such as "homeless person" or "vagrant." At one time, tramps were known euphemistically in England and Wales as "gentlemen of the road."

Tramp as promiscuous woman

Perhaps because female tramps were often regarded as prostitutes, the term tramp came to be used to refer to a promiscuous woman. This is largely an Americanism and not in global usage.[8] According to Australian linguist Kate Burridge, the term shifted towards this meaning in the 1920s, having previously predominantly referred to men, it followed the path of other similar gender neutral words (such as "slag") to having specific reference to female sexual laxity.[9]

The word is also used, with ambiguous irony, in the classic 1937 Rodgers and Hart song The Lady Is a Tramp, which is about a wealthy member of New York high society who chooses a vagabond life in "hobohemia".[10] Other songs with implicit or explicit reference to this usage include The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp and Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves. The use of the word with the explicitly sexual meaning is especially common in hip hop culture.[11]

See also


  1. "Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter XXX".
  2. Todd DePastino (2005). Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago University Press. pp. 1–48. ISBN 0226143791.
  3. Burnett, J., Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990, Routledge, 2002, p.128.
  4. Pinkerton, Allan (1877). Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, New York: G.W. Carleton & Co.
  5. Kennedy, Bart (1900). A man adrift: being leaves from a nomad's portfolio. Chicago: H.S. Stone. p. 161.
  6. John Sutherland. "Kennedy, Bart" in Companion to Victorian Literature. Stanford University Press, 1989.
  7. DePastino, Todd. Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: 157
  8. "tramp definition, meaning - what is tramp in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online".
  9. Kate Burridge, Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.60.
  10. Gary Marmorstein, A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart, Simon and Schuster, 2013, p.298>
  11. Forman, M & Neal, M.A., That's the Joint!: The Hip-hop Studies Reader, Psychology Press, 2004, p.279.
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