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[i] "Hurry up!" their mother said, and the three boys clambered onto the train. . . .

[ii] They were carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbor, where they clambered out onto rocks and pebbles. . . .

[iii] Then they clambered up a passageway in the rock after Hagrid's lamp, coming out at last onto smooth, damp grass right in the shadow of the castle.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Does this word, clamber, used only when somebody climbs up something using their hands? Or can it also be used when they don’t use their hands?

  • to climb or move with difficulty or a lot of effort, using your hands and feet (OALD)
  • to climb or crawl in an awkward way (Merriam-Webster’s)
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    I could find no reference in any dictionaries specifying the use of hands while clambering. Its just an awkward/hurried climb it seems. – VijayaRagavan Nov 15 '13 at 12:17
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    @VijayaRagavan The OED says: "intr. To climb by catching hold with hands and feet; to creep or crawl up (or down); to climb with difficulty and effort." Collins says: "usually foll by up, over, etc to climb (something) awkwardly, esp by using both hands and feet". The AHD says: "To climb with difficulty, especially on all fours; scramble." Macmillan says: "to climb something with difficulty, using your hands and feet" – snailcar Nov 15 '13 at 15:39
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    Those were the first four I checked. I eventually managed to find one which didn't directly specify the use of hands, which was Wiktionary, though it used the word climb which usually implies the use of hands... – snailcar Nov 15 '13 at 15:40
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    JKR probably wants to indicate disorder and hurry more than a specific set of physical actions. When I see the word, I just think of people doing whatever they can to get somewhere. That probably means using their hands (and, certainly, children boarding a train will make use of their hands—to the chagrin of their germaphobic guardians), but I wouldn't categorize that as a strictly essential element of the word's usage. – Tyler James Young Nov 15 '13 at 20:05
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    In all your quoted instances I see no indications that hands weren't involved- I picture each of them with hands. – Jim Nov 16 '13 at 5:36
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As mentioned in the comments to the question, 'clamber' means 'to climb with difficulty using hands and feet'. However, one could argue here that Rowling is using 'clamber' almost in a poetic/metaphorical sense that does not require the use of hands as well as feet.

If I recognise the parts of the first Harry Potter book correctly, not all of those passages may indicate the new first years actually using hands and feet to arrive at Hogwarts. Although clambering in or out of a boat or train certainly would require hands, a crowd of children in new school uniforms approaching the castle up a muddy passageway on hands and feet does not seem right. The right sense is more of an untidy, childlike ascent of a slope.

In the same way if Rowling said "then they climbed up a passageway", you would know they are not literally climbing using hands and feet.

Interestingly, there is a separate quite technical sense of 'clamber' used in hill-walking in Scotland. There is specifically means something you can't walk to the top of, but you don't need expert climbing equipment or expertise to ascend. Thus, there are several hills in Scotland you can only get to the top of by 'clambering', but only one (the 'Inaccessible Pinnacle) where you are required to 'climb'.

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