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The Church of I Am That I Am
The Church of I AM THAT I AM

It’s been a while, but I’m still aiming to catalog all the two-letter words in the English language. That brings us to am, which is a simple and common word. I’m sure you can use it in a sentence. But can you define it? According to the Wiktionary, it’s the “first-person singular simple present indicative form of be.” (I’ll deal with be later.) It’s a state-of-being verb, famously deployed in statements such as “I am that I am” and “I think therefore I am.” But both of those are translations from other languages: אהיה אשר אהיה (Ehyeh asher ehyeh) and Je pense, donc je suis or Cogito ergo sum. I’m trying to think of a famous am in original English but I’m drawing a blank. “I am a jelly donut,” perhaps? No, that’s Ich bin ein Berliner. Oh well.

Four words can be formed by adding a letter at the end of am:

  1. An ama is a female nurse (possibly a wet nurse) who looks after children, a variant of amah, borrowed from India or China. It could also be goat-hair fabric or an outrigger float.
  2. An ami is a friend. I thought this was a French word, but apparently some sources consider it to have entered the English language.
  3. Amp is short for ampere, a unit of electrical measurement.
  4. An amu is an atomic mass unit, which is one of those acronyms that has evolved into a word, like scuba or radar. It must be tricky to figure out exactly when that happens.

Twelve words can be formed by adding a letter to the beginning of am:

  1. As Emiril likes to say when he kicks it up a notch: “Bam!”
  2. A cam is a little lopsided thing that turns around in various types of machinery.
  3. A dam is a thing that beavers and humans build.
  4. Gam is a slangy term for a leg, but also a collective noun for a group of whales, and apparently also a nautical verb for making a social visit at sea.
  5. I think ham is too common to need definition.
  6. Ditto jam.
  7. For some reason we’re all familiar with the phrase “on the lam,” but no one can seem to explain what a lam is, exactly.
  8. What, nam is a word? It’s listed in Webster’s 1913 as an obsolete term meaning “am not.” I think we should bring this one back. “I nam a crook!”
  9. Apparently there’s a card game called pam. The jack of clubs is the highest trump in the game, so you can also call that jack a pam.
  10. A ram is a mature male sheep.
  11. A tam is a Scottish cap, short for Tam o’ Shanter
  12. A yam is similar to a sweet potato. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but they are actually two separate and distinct tubers.

By the by, the two photos featured above are of a single church in New Orleans. The pictures were taken a year apart by two different photographers, and I guess the building was renovated in the interim. Neither of the photographers appears to live in New Orleans, and I doubt they’ve seen each others’ photos. Credits below.

The Church of I Am That I Am / Ari Frede / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Church of I AM THAT I AM / Mills Baker / CC BY 2.0

Published inWords & Numbers


  1. Garvey Garvey

    Famous am phrases in English? I am the lizard king (Jim Morrison). I am the walrus (Lennon). I am what I am (Popeye).

    (Btw, is “cataloging” the right concept here? It makes it sound like you’re Samuel Johnson or something.)

  2. Hello! I love this post, and am (I get to feel as though I’m making a topical joke now just by writing “am”) happy that the photo is part of it.

    I am from New Orleans, although I no longer live there. Incidentally, that biblical phrase -“I am that I am”- and its translation, which is debated, are quite unusual, and the subject of a lot of scholarship and speculation.

    Anyway, again: thanks for including the photo, and this is a great series!

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