Mystery of the strange new words

NOVEL WAY OF DOING IT: the upper ferry between Southtown and South Quay, used by a Porthole reader f

NOVEL WAY OF DOING IT: the upper ferry between Southtown and South Quay, used by a Porthole reader for visits to the library to change his books. This ferry closed in 1954.Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Have I ever mentioned that I once read medicine? No, I thought not. It was nearly seven decades ago and had quite slipped my mind. I was only ten years old at the time.

Yes, it is true, I read medicine – not studied it at university, of course, but absorbed an extraordinary amount of information from the pages of my parents’ doctors book. Still puzzled? Let me explain.

Until the 1948 launch of the National Health Service and free medical treatment, most homes had a family doctor book, a thick volume bound in imitation leather with “gold” lettering on cover and spine, usually obtained free or cheaply from popular national newspapers.

At the first sign of a sore throat, rash or abnormal ache or pain, people would consult this essential compendium instead of going to their doctor’s surgery or summoning him to the house, thereby saving having to pay his fees. In its small-print pages was an alphabetical list of almost every ailment, illness or condition likely to befall a patient, some of them obscure and even foreign. There were grainy monochrome photographs or ink sketches to illustrate the tome.

When I was ten, with the 11-plus scholarship examinations approaching and hopefully a transfer from Stradbroke Road School in Gorleston to Great Yarmouth Grammar School, I was struck down by four successive illnesses, beginning with scarlet fever. Instead of a spell in the Northgate isolation hospital in Yarmouth, my parents decided to keep me at home.

One problem after another meant weeks in bed, with only the wireless to entertain me because I had to deprive myself of all my copious reading matter (Biggles, Percy F Westerman, Just William etc). This was because when I recovered and the room was fumigated, they would have to be burned because of contamination.

So, apart from a handful of books I was prepared to sacrifice, my main reading matter was...yes, the family doctor bible.

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I learned much from its hundreds of pages, reading the text and perusing the illustrations, resulting in my mother regularly being pestered by my insistence that I had rickets, hammer toe, curvature of the spine, beri-beri and other items gleaned from the pages.

She pooh-poohed my fears, but when our family GP, the respected but brusque Dr Anderson, paid a visit, I often managed to mention my latest clutch of life-threatening conditions culled from that book, but he never looked concerned...

I survived my four genuine illnesses, suffered from none of the numerous extras about which I had read, returned to school and passed the 11-plus. That family doctor book was taken away for incineration and never replaced.

So, against that background of reading medicine, I really ought not to have been puzzled by a word I came across recently in my GP surgery in Gorleston, a failing particularly embarrassing because of my lifetime in journalism and love of words.

That mystery word was on notices declaring: “In an attempt to manage the ever-increasing demand for doctor appointments, please be advised that...all requests for appointments will be initially triaged by our reception staff. All have been trained and we hope that buy implementing these your doctor will have increasing availability to see you when appropriate.”

Triaged? That was a definite first for me. My dictionary defines “triage” as: “The assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients.”

Yes, the perfect word for what the doctors’ practice is seeking to achieve, but I wondered how many patients understood the message - and how many had to ask receptionists what it means, requiring them to explain at possibly busy times?

I asked a few people if they knew the definition of “triage” - and was chastened when all but one replied that they did. “Don’t you watch Casualty or Holby City on TV?” responded one. “They’re always talking about triaging on there.” I had not viewed a medical programme since Emergency Ward Ten!

A white van often parked near Peggotty’s Hut in Gorleston has sides sign-written with the information that it belongs to Core Medical Solutions offering “specialist mobile lithotripsy”. Out came my trusty dictionary again: lithotripsy, a word used in surgery, is “a treatment using ultrasound to shatter a urinary calculus so that it can be passed out by the body.”

Calculus? I knew that was a mathematical term but had to refer to my dictionary for a third time to discover a precise definition: “a concretion of minerals formed in the kidney, gall bladder or other organ” (and is also another word for tartar of which I used to have liberal amounts chipped from my teeth).

According to the van side, Core does X-rays, ultra-sound scanning, kidney stone treatment and orthopaedic therapy. I must have a word with the driver one day...

A regular correspondent who shared my boyhood love of Biggles and Just William books is expatriate Danny Daniels, a Canada resident since the Fifties, but he has added a new dimension to visiting a library to change his reading matter. As a lad, I used to walk or cycle to Gorleston library...but Danny writes: “The other thing I remember from pre-war is going over the ferry to change my books at the library in the Toll House on Middlegate Street.

“From Anson Road you crossed over Southtown Road and went down the passage beside the garage and caught the (upper) ferry at the bottom there. Joe was the ferryman, if I recall correctly, and it was a ha’penny for children and a penny for adults, and if they had a bike, it had to go in the bow. Often, if the tide was running strongly, one of the men would push on the oars to help propel the boat across the river.

“The only complaint I had about the library (from which I obtained all the William and Biggles books) was that, for the week, you were only allowed one fiction book but up to four non-fiction ones.

“Mind you, I really enjoyed biographies so I was able to read all about Gandhi, T E Lawrence, Gordon of Khartoum and many other exciting personalities.”