Ambulance Chasing

An ambulance passed me by yesterday, and as I was looking at the word written on the side, I got to thinking about its etymology. Ambulance: surely there’s some association with walking in its history, considering similar words derived from the Latin verb ambulare (to walk) still exist today. To amble is an obvious one, but also the adjective ambulatory (associated with walking) Less obvious is pram (stroller or baby carriage in American English), a short form of the now outdated perambulator.

The word ambulance is derived from the French hôpital ambulant, literally meaning walking hospital. This term (first recorded in the late 18th century) referred to portable field hospitals which could be taken apart and carried from battlefield to battlefield as the army moved around. During the Crimean War, in the middle of the 19th century, the term came to be used to refer to a vehicle to carry the wounded from the field, and it’s a pretty clear step from there to the vehicles we know today.

It’s interesting how a word can undergo a quite logical progression from its origin, and yet end up being looking like its root has no relation to its meaning, unless you dig deep into its etymology.

Camera is another similar word. It has its origins in the term camera obscura, literally meaning dark chamber. A camera obscura (the words are Latin) was a method of projecting images dating back to the 16th century. Light would enter through a hole in a  dark box or room, and project an image on the wall. One can easily see how modern cameras owe their origins to such devices, and yet to an objective observer who knew only Latin and English, and not the history of words, it might seem strange that the technology in your phone which you use to take selfies should be named after the Latin word for chamber. This has also led to the strange case of the phrase in camera, which has two very different uses. In film-making, creating special effects in camera means doing so using just the camera and its components, and not any processing after the fact. Yet in the legal world, if a meeting takes place within a judge’s chambers, it’s said to take place in camera.

Once again, the evolutionary steps which lead to this situation make sense, but without knowing those steps, camera meaning chamber doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Which is an inevitable, and to me, fascinating, aspect of English. These curiosities force nerds like me to investigate why such apparent oddities exist, and then find interesting stories along the way. It makes me wonder if soon, some young people will wonder why the symbol for the camera on their phone is of a strange little device, and decide to investigate exactly what this thing is, and realise that (even if they don’t go all the way back to the camera obscura) a camera was once more than an app.

8 thoughts on “Ambulance Chasing

  1. I’m enjoying your language loving posts. Am quite partial to the “study of truth” myself. Truth of course as in the true meaning of words, study of ancient Greek and Latin really helps with etymology a lot, doesn’t it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up calling it an “ec-na-lubma” because in Ontario they paint it on the front backwards so you can see it in the rear view mirror correctly. Every time we saw one, that’s what my mother would say. Great post–I love the etymology of words, especially the quirky ones:-)

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    • Thanks, I remember being very confused seeing “ECNALUBMA” as a kid, until a teacher explained the logic behind it at some point. Now that I think about it I don’t seem to notice it much anymore. I wonder if they’ve stopped doing it here. Or maybe I’m now used to seeing it in the car’s mirrors!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve also just rememberd that when signs are written on the actual surface of the road, I always read them top to bottom (farthest to nearest), rather than from nearest to farthest, as is the intended idea. That just feels wrong to me though, like reading backwards.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The etymology of “telephone” itself might seem obscure to future generations. “Phone” means “sound” but we are increasingly using our phones as devises for all kinds of activities unrelated to sound.

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    • That’s true. It’s funny that the symbol for the phone function, and apps like Whatsapp and Viber, is an old phone receiver. It’s funny that everyone knows straight away what function it represents, but there are probably kids now who don’t recognise the object. Like using the image of a floppy disk to represent the save function on computers.


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