In a Word: Chasing Ambulances

Take a walk through the history of how the ambulance got its name.

New York, Brooklyn / United States - November 15th 2018: an ambulance flashes its lights during a snowstorm

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

You’re driving along a road you’ve been down countless times before. Your attention is drawn to the rearview mirror: Flashing lights behind you are getting brighter, and just then you hear the wail of a siren. You slow your vehicle and drift to the edge of the road. Moments after you stop, a loud, boxy truck zips by at high speed, lit up like an over-caffeinated Christmas tree. Across the back of the truck, in capital letters, you read the word AMBULANCE, and something deep in your mind says, That can’t be right. 

You’ve made a connection. Maybe your spouse has problems with somnambulism (sleepwalking), or your child wants to become a circus funambulist (tightrope walker), or you’re just the type of person who likes to amble from one place to another. Whatever the connection is, it causes a twinge of dissonance as you realize that the ambul- in ambulance signifies “walking.”  

And you’re right. Ambulance traces back to the Latin ambulare “to walk.” But how could that be, when the purpose of an ambulance is the very opposite of a walk to the hospital? 

By the 17th century, French armies had formed medical groups to tend to the wounded on the battlefield. They were called hôpital ambulant, literally a “walking hospital” that would relocate as the army advanced or retreated. By the end of the 18th century, these field hospitals were just called ambulances. 

Though this type of ambulance was recognized in English, its use was fairly uncommon. But people did start using the word attributively — that is, they used it like an adjective. Field hospitals couldn’t reach every last wounded soldier where they lay, so the injured were loaded into ambulance wagons or ambulance carts and transported (hopefully a short distance) to where the doctors were stationed. Pretty soon, the wagons themselves were being called ambulances, and it’s this use that took hold in English, especially during and after the Crimean War of 1853-56. 

As transportation technology developed, so too did the ambulance. Authors and authors-to-be Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Somerset Maugham, E.E. Cummings, and Dashiell Hammett were all ambulance drivers during World War I, and by then, the vehicular type of ambulance was the only kind that most soldiers knew. 

From there, the term only needed to make the jump from military to civilian use, which, as we see in words like trench coat, blockbuster, and clobber, is a fairly short jump.  

And now, thankfully, ambulances like the one that zipped past you save lives every day, even if what we call them doesn’t entirely make sense. 

Featured image: Shutterstock 

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  1. No Greek or Latin ties this week, but a French connection to the word ‘ambulance’. You’re right, the walking connection part is rather surprising, not to mention ironic. It’s not a word I generally think about origin-wise, but do anyway if that makes sense? It’s because virtually EVERY time I’m out in the car, there’s an LAFD fire/rescue truck or an ambulance coming up from behind or up ahead in the distance.

    You have to pull over to the right either way. The worst is being in an intersection and not being able to do anything about it. It’s pretty frightening. When it happened to me a few years ago, it seemed like the ambulance was just suddenly there! Of all the times to not have heard it for at least several blocks first, that’s the worst. Now I’m always on high alert for them. You have to be.


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