The city of Larsen Bay got some good news this past week: The city of Kodiak is donating their old ambulance to the 100-person community on the west side of the island.
The word “ambulance” came to English in 1798, from the French word of the same spelling. Back then, it meant a mobile or field hospital. Literally, the word merely means walk. At the heart of the word is the Latin verb “ambulare,” which, to the ancient Romans, meant to go take a walk.
In the literal way, not the figurative.
The Proto-Indo-European root is “ambhi,” meaning around, and related to the PIE root “el,” which simply means to go. The sense is that to amble means to wander around. You can see this meaning in words like “ambassador” (who travels around to do her job), “amphitheater” (which surrounds the stage) and “ambience.”
By the early 14th century, the word was used primarily to talk about a horse’s easygoing pace. In fact, in the late 19th-century United States, European immigrants moving west used the word “ambulance” for a prairie wagon, ambling along the westward trail.
But when we think of ambulance, we don’t think of something that’s easygoing; we probably think just the opposite. Ambling hospitals our modern-day ambulances are not.
At some point in the 1600s, the word was adopted by the military.
In 17th century France, for instance, they had the term “hopital ambulant,” referring to a small building that could be easily taken apart, carried from place to place, and put back together according to wherever the army told them to set up shop. These houses would serve as triage centers where sick and wounded soldiers could get treatment. That is, the word ambulance meant something more like a field hospital, like in “MASH.”
It wasn’t until the Crimean War in the 1850s that the English adopted the word solely for a vehicle used to transport wounded soldiers from the field to a legit hospital. Likely, ambulance was used to refer to the purpose of the structure — as a temporary hospital — than the speed and gait at which the wounded were transported.
This meaning was used about 50 years later to refer to a specialized vehicle to care for ill or wounded civilians on their way to the hospital.
Or, in some cases, to transport a pregnant mother going into labor.
Which seems to be on a downward trend as the National Center for Health Statistics released a study this week indicating that the U.S. is facing its lowest birth-rate in 32 years. In fact, the U.S. hasn’t hit its “replacement level” of 2.1 births per 1,000 since 2009, although the birth rate has usually been below replacement since 1971.
We see the first use of the word “birth” in the days of Middle English, around the year 1200, and meant then, as it does today, the fact of being born. In other words, back then, I would say, “I was birthed” as well as “I was born.” By the middle of the 13th century, it was used for the act of giving birth, and in some cases (and not to wade too deeply into the abortion debate), it was used to imply conception, not physical childbirth.
The Scandinavian source of “birth” is the Old Norse “byrdr,” which you can actually see in the Old English word “gebyrd.” “Gebyrd,” however, had a slew of meanings: descent, offspring, nature and fate.
The Proto-Germanic root is “gaburthis,” from the PIE root “bher,” meaning to carry or bear children.
And technically, the “–th” at the end of birth is an Old English suffix meaning process. You can see the same suffix in words like “bath,” the process of immersing yourself in water, and “death,” the act of dying. (RIP Tim Conway)
For centuries, the word “birth” was used exclusively for living things. In Elizabethan England, though, English speakers started using the word for anything — living or nonliving — coming into existence.
Or even the abstract.
At the end of the 16th century, Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Juliet confesses to her nurse after finding out Romeo is a Montague: “Prodigious birth of love it is to me, / That I must love a loathed enemy.”
At that time, to think of love being birthed was a revolutionary, and of course poetic, way of thinking about the act of something being born.
But as Shakespeare also wrote: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.