ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

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ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:20 pm

In this week’s issue of Michael Quinion’s e-magazine, a reader asked about the provenance of the phrase AMBULANCE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE CLIFF, a term that he mentioned is much used in his native New Zealand. The expression (I like it!) seems so apt for the situation it describes that I thought I would mention it here.

Quinion responded:
<2012 “The evidence shows that it’s used to some extent in North America and the UK, though I’ve no memory of having encountered it. . . . The phrase suggests that somebody is expensively providing the wrong solution to a problem.”— World Wide Words E-Magazine, Issue 779, 24 March>

I thought the old maxim that also applies here is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The majority of the quotes I found were from New Zealand, but a good sprinkling (see below) weren’t. The first quote is the one that Quinion provides as the earliest he found and the rest are from archived sources:
<1920 “The politician is like the person who would build an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of constructing a good fence at the top.”—Maoriland Worker (New Zealand, 25 February> [

<1977 “An Ambulance at the Cliff: A fable. A dangerous curve existed on a mountain road. Drivers trying to negotiate the curve often would lose control of their cars, which would skid off the road and over a steep cliff. The drivers would be hurt seriously or die. The obviously serious problem needed to be corrected. One way would be to straighten the road as much as possible and install a barrier to prevent cars from going over the cliff. Another would be to leave the road as it was and simply station an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Then, you see, the injured could be quickly taken to the hospital for treatment. That latter course is, of course, ludicrous. But no more ludicrous than a proposal before President Carter, to eliminate most safety regulations at working places and to substitute higher workmen’s compensation benefits for those who are injured on the job.”—Boca Raton News (Florida), 8 July, page 4A>

<1998 “. . . the anti-landmines campaign, which led to the signing of the Ottawa Convention last December, should come under renewed scrutiny in the present climate. . . . The fact remains that mines are being laid 25 times faster than they can be cleared, meaning that no amount of mine clearance will adequately address the long-term problem in the absence of an unambiguous and properly enforced prohibition on their use in future conflicts. Clearance is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff; the ban ought to be the guard-rail at its edge.”—The Independent (London), 30 August>

<2010 “Passing the Food Safety Modernization Act would be like putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, . . . Having more authority to trace and recall tainted food does not address the real causes of foodborne disease.”—Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 30 November>

<2012 “. . . were adopting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach rather than being proactive and creating opportunities that would keep the town centre alive.”—Ashburton Guardian (New Zealand), 14 March>

Ken G – March 26, 2012

PS: To sign up for Michael Quinions free weekly World Wide Words E-Magazine go here.

Re: ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Post by tony h » Mon Mar 26, 2012 10:58 pm

I like this although I have never heard it used.
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Mar 31, 2012 9:13 pm

In today’s issue of World Wide Words E-Magazine (March 31, 2012), which I’ve quoted below, Michael Quinion provided an earlier (than 1920) reference for the phrase ambulance at the bottom of the cliff:
<2012 It’s a poem with the title A Fence or an Ambulance, which appears online under various authors’ names (or none) and in a number of versions, but is now perhaps best known in the one sung by John Denver. The poem is by the English temperance activist Joseph Malins and dates from 1895. It’s recorded in his biography of 1932 but the earliest appearance that I’ve found is over his name in a US newspaper of December 1901. The poem is an allegory. A community debates whether to build a fence at the top of a cliff to prevent people falling or to provide an ambulance at the bottom to treat the injuries resulting from falls.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling:
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence round the top of the cliff.
Than an ambulance down in the valley!—World Wide Words E-Mafazine, 31 March>

As it turns out, John Denver never sang a version of this poem as claimed above. What he did do was recite a version, most notably when he received the World Ecology Medal in 1990 in St. Louis, Missouri. The version he recited he said he found in a magazine in his chiropractor’s office:

' Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant,
But over its terrible edge there had slipped,
A duke and full many a peasant.

So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally.
Some said, "Put a fence around the edge of the cliff,"
Some, "An ambulance down in the valley."

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city,
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became moved with pity,

For those who slipped over that dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers on highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked, "it's a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing the results than to stopping the cause,
When they'd much better aim at prevention.

"Let us stop at its source all this hurt," cried he.
"Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally.
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley.

Ken – March 31, 2012

Re: ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Post by John Barton » Sun Mar 24, 2013 4:30 am

The origin of this aphorism is not later than 1895, the date of a poem "The Ambulance Down in the Valley" by Joseph Malins. But Wikipedia attributes it to (without certainty) Sir Truby King, a pioneer New Plymouth (New Zealand) doctor, in relation to infant mortality. Since the latter was born 1858, the poem is quite possibly a later expansion of this doctor's words, which would account for its popularity in New Zealand.
Signature: John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Re: ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Mar 24, 2013 8:28 am

It is good to see you back John. I hope this is not a fleeting visit.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

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