Words about words

Triage - Norsk Språk

Photo: Otis Historical Archive
World War I wounded arriving at a triage station, Suippes, France.

Asker, Norway

In both Norwegian and English, triage is a loanword from French, in which it comes from the verb trier, meaning to separate, select, or sort.

In English, triage first appeared in print in 1728, in the two-volume Cyclopædia, a dictionary of the arts and sciences published in London by English writer and encyclopedist Ephraim Chambers (1680-1740). It was then a term used in weaving to express the quality of the woof, the threads running crosswise to create the texture of the fabric being woven. 

The second appearance of triage in print in English was in Stretchers, a narrative of an American hospital unit on the Western Front in World War I by Yale University professor Frederick Albert Pottle (1897-1987), published by Yale University Press in 1929. His observation of a French triage station in action brought the term into the vocabulary of emergency medicine.

A triage station is a place where the condition of incoming casualties is assessed. That meaning came about in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, when Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), a military surgeon in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, was obliged to prioritize medical resources to decide which casualties were most in need of medical attention, irrespective of their rank. It was he who first used the French verb trier to distinguish between urgent and non-urgent treatments of casualties. Though the Grand Armée lost the Battle of Waterloo, the concept of triage went on to become a worldwide standard of practice of emergency medicine.

At this writing, there are entries of the word triage in printed English dictionaries, but not in printed Norwegian ones. That said, there’s an entry on triage in Det Norske Akademis ordbok (literally “Dictionary of the Norwegian Academy”), abbreviated NAOB, a freely available online dictionary covering Bokmål, the most widely used written variety of contemporary Norwegian. The entry on triage is at:

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.