You are familiar with the sound of the siren and the sight of the flashing lights of the ambulance, aren't you? But did you know that the ambulance began as a walking hospital?
Strange as it may seem at first, the word "ambulance" indeed started off as a walking hospital. That is "un hopital ambulant" in French, meaning literally "a walking hospital."
The "hopital ambulant" was devised during the campaigns of Napoleon to bring medical aid directly to his troops in the field. The original "hopital ambulant" was a mobile unit designed to carry dressings and drugs to the wounded and evacuate the injured from the line of battle.
The British, knowing a good idea when they saw it, came up with their own version of the "hopital ambulant." But they economized by dropping the "hopital" and corrupted "ambulant" to "ambulance."
The French, of course, have for many years railed against the incursions of Anglo-Saxon words into the pure precincts of the French language. Nonetheless, they rejected their own "hopital ambulant" and embraced the English "ambulance." So, in France today you can no longer see a hospital walking but "ambulances" are very much in evidence.
Last Editorial Review: 8/2/2002