Tightrope walking and ambulances: what do they share in common?
In the early hours of 7 August 1974, after six years of planning and months of subterfuge, Philippe Petit stepped out onto a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. A crowd of thousands gathered to watch the breathtaking 45 minute display, as Petit walked, danced, and even lay down on the wire suspended 1,350 feet from the ground. What better time to take a walk across the linguistic history of tightrope walkers than the fortieth anniversary of this incredible moment in tightrope walking history? Just don’t look down…
Putting the fun into tightrope walking
Tightrope walkers are not a recent phenomenon – there have been a variety of words used to describe a person who performs balancing feats on a stretched rope or wire dating back nearly half a millennium. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s first recorded evidence for the phrase ‘walker on ropes’ currently dates from 1542; variations on funambulo, taken from the Spanish funambulo or Italian funambolo (more on the Latin roots later) date from the early 17th century, with funambulist first making an appearance in English in 1793; the word equilibrist, meaning ‘one who is skilled in feats of ‘balancing’; esp. a rope-walker, acrobat’ first appeared in a 1760 edition of The Monthly Review; and in the mid-17th century a petaurist referred to an acrobat, tumbler, or tightrope dancer, though by the 19th century it had become a zoological term for a mammal having fur-covered skin membranes between fore and hind limbs which enable them to make gliding leaps, like a flying squirrel. One can only assume the link is to do with the gracefulness of both, rather than a reference to the hairiness of tightrope walkers.
The Blondin following the Blondin
Perhaps the most famous tightrope walker, other than Philippe Petit, is Charles Blondin (real name Jean-François Gravelet). Blondin achieved fame by crossing the gorge below Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He first completed the feat on 30 June 1859, and on different occasions went on to do it blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying his manager on his back, and one time carried a stove, stopped halfway across and cooked himself an omelette. Such was his fame that his name became synonymous with his act. A blondin began to be used to refer to a tightrope or to a tightrope walker – the first recorded evidence of blondin being used this way comes from one of Charles Dickens’ Uncommercial Traveller literary sketches in 1863: “An appalling accident happened at the People’s Park near Birmingham… the enterprising Directors… hanging the Blondin rope as high as they possibly could hang it.”
Walk like a Greek
There are words for tightrope walker that have both Greek and Latin roots. Schœnobatist is a rare term for a tightrope walker, taken from the Greek skoinobatikos – skoinos meaning ‘rope’ and bainein ‘to walk’. Similarly acrobat comes from the Greek akrobatēs, from akrobatos ‘walking on tiptoe’, from akron ‘tip’ + bainein ‘to walk’. The word funambulist has the same formation but from the Latin – fūnis means ‘rope’ and ambulāre ‘to walk’.
Speaking of walking, it seems an appropriate time to leave the tightrope path for a moment and take a brief detour on to ‘ambulāre’. As well as funambulist (and funambulo, funambulant, funambulus, funambuler, funambulator, and funambule), ambulāre forms the root to an array of words that feel very satisfying in the mouth. These include:
|circumambulate||To walk all the way round|
|noctambulate||To walk about at night|
|obambulate||To walk about; to wander here and there|
|perambulate||To walk or travel through or round a place
Also: to walk round (a parish, forest, etc.) in order to officially assert and record its boundaries
|redambulate||To walk back|
|vicambulate||To walk about in the streets|
|somnambulate||To walk during sleep|
|inambulate||To walk up and down in a place|
How did ‘ambulance’ get its name?
You’ll notice that all these words have the ending –ambulate, and an interesting addition to this list is, indeed, ‘ambulance’. But what does ‘a vehicle equipped for taking sick or injured people to and from hospital, especially in emergencies’ have to do with walking? In the early 19th century an ambulance was ‘a moving hospital, which follows an army in its movements, so as to afford the speediest possible succour to the wounded.’ It came into general use during the Crimean War, and originated from the French, hôpital ambulant, or walking hospital.
To return to funambulism, one would think that funambulists would require ambulances on a fairly regular basis, but in Philippe Petit’s case this is not so. In an interview with the British newspaper The Observer in 2003 he spoke about his only accident: a fall of 45ft during a practice walk, in which he broke several ribs and suffered internal injuries (and presumably required an ambulance). He asserted: ‘It was practice. And practice is a very different field. Wire-walking in performance is one thing – I never fell, of course. If I had, I wouldn’t be here talking about it.’
Luckily for us, Philippe Petit is still here to talk about it, and his incredible story is told in the brilliant 2008 film Man on Wire . Personally I think the film is enough for me. I’m going to keep away from the practical side of funambulism, and will stick to the rather less dangerous option of gently obambulating when the mood takes.