How quickly the English language evolves these days! I’ve just emerged from a break of a few months to find a glistening array of new words at my disposal. And because I’ve been thrown, for my sins, into the company of doctors, I’ve noticed surprising innovations in the way that indispensable profession chooses to communicate with us.

Every message from them seems now to involve the word “triage”, pronounced as it would be in France, as though it were a very new arrival in English. Yet my doctor and his “team” (the fashionable way to refer now to a group of colleagues no matter what the link between them) pepper their directions with “triage” as though we are all intimately familiar with the expression. It was new to me. 

I looked it up in the late twentieth-century edition of the OED (1979), and it isn’t there at all. Taking the hint from its pronunciation that it’s a French word, I find that it is indeed French, and means “ordering” or “sorting”. But why has French been requisitioned to supply a word now in common use but hitherto quite unknown to ordinary users of the health service? 

And when did this cuckoo-in-the-nest expression come on the scene? I assumed it came as part of the armoury with which our beleaguered medical service took on Covid. In that crisis no doubt there arose a need for extra discipline in the management of competing claims for attention or treatment. But I have no recollection of its being in use as long ago as three years back. I’ve heard explanations tracing its use back to the Crimean War in the 1850s, when England fought against Russia in an alliance with the French and the Ottoman Empire. Yet it seems to have been introduced half a century earlier than that, by the Surgeon in Chief to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey. This was surely an administrative achievement worthy of the English themselves, and so it’s right and proper that the French should take full credit for it, and their word, in spite of the fact that it’s awkward to pronounce, should be used in English sentences. 

An explanatory leaflet issued by my medical practice (which makes no mention of this history) tells me and my fellow patients that “triage” is part of a new, more efficient system of determining priorities. To achieve this, various officials are to be renamed. Our old familiar receptionists are receptionists no longer. They are henceforth “care navigators”. I am sure that under this smart, indeed rather Napoleonic new title they will be much more efficient at sorting us all out. I look forward to being cured of all my ailments in double quick time.

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