• ambulance •
æm-byê-læns • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A high-speed vehicle for transporting patients from the scene of an emergency to a hospital or medical center. In the US West around the turn of the century, today's word was used to refer to an ordinary prairie wagon.
Notes: Usually, the suffix -ce simply converts an adjective into a noun with the same meaning, for example, important : importance, distant : distance. Today's noun, though, has ambled quite a distance from the adjective it comes from: ambulant means "capable of walking or moving", while an ambulance is a moveable hospital (see Word History). Indeed, the verb that underlies them all, ambulate, means simply "walk".
In Play: The meaning of ambulance is rather restricted today: "Quick! Call an ambulance! Dad just opened his tax bill." The adjective, however, is much more flexible: "The baby became ambulant when it was only 9 months old and was conversant at 18 months." In fact, you can use them all at once, "If Horace is still ambulant after reading his tax bill, ask him to ambulate to the ambulance and save these young men from carrying his corpulent carcass."
Word History: Did you ever think it curious that ambulance, a vehicle known for its considerable speed, should so resemble amble? It is because they are cousins. Today's word came from a simplification of the French phrase hôpital ambulant "mobile hospital". Ambulant came from Latin ambulan(t)s, the present participle of ambulare "to walk." The same word gave us amble via the French variant, ambler "to walk". French also turned the Latin parent into allée, borrowed from French by English as alley. The root probably descended from Proto-Indo-European ambhi "around", originally "from both sides", the mother of Greek amphi "around, on both sides", seen in our borrowing amphitheater. (Today let's thank ambulant Trevor Thompson for spotting both sides of today's root: the fast one and the slow one.)
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