What’s fun about an ambulance?

A funambulist sounds like someone who cruises in a purple paisley ambulance with a disco ball replacing the flashing lights on top. I encountered the word in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), a novel of that dances from fast-moving plot to closely observed emotions to poetry with the agility of a tightrope walker.

A funambulist is ‘a walker on either a tight or slack rope’ from  Latin fūnambul-us, < fūn-is rope + ambulāre to walk + –ist suffix.

Another word stemming from  fūn-is is funicular, meaning, ‘of or pertaining to a rope or its tension; depending on or worked by a rope, for example, funicular railway: one worked by a cable and stationary engine; a cable railway. Among its other meanings is ‘pertaining to the funis or umbilical cord.’

From ambulāre we get the following (sometimes through French):

Amble, ‘of a horse, mule, etc.: To move by lifting the two feet on one side together, alternately with the two feet on the other; hence, to move at a smooth or easy pace. Hence, To move in a way suggesting the motion or pace of an ambling horse.’

Ambulatory, ‘of or pertaining to a walker, or to walking.’

perambulate a. trans. ‘To walk through, over, or about (a place or space). b. intr. To walk, wander, or travel from place to place; to move.’ Also with about, around.

So what about ambulance?  Isn’t that a vehicle for those who are not ambulatory? It comes into English from modern French ambulance (formerly hôpital ambulant walking hospital. Originally it meant, ‘A moving hospital, which follows an army in its movements, to give quick aid to the wounded.’ Later it came to mean ‘a covered vehicle on springs for conveying the wounded off the field of battle, etc.’  and more recently, ‘a vehicle for conveying sick or wounded persons.’

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One Response to What’s fun about an ambulance?

  1. Speaking of hospitals, there and in nursing homes you’ll find the staff using the word ambulate as a highfalutin way of saying ‘walk.’

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