A re-emergent meaning?

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Jennifer Henderson, "UnitedHealthcare to Crack Down on 'Non-Emergent' ED Claims", MedPage Today 6/8/2021:

UnitedHealthcare plans to take a closer look at emergency department (ED) claims beginning July 1.

In a June network bulletin posted to its website, the insurer said that it will assess ED facility commercial claims to determine if an event was emergent or non-emergent. Claims determined to be non-emergent will be subject to no coverage or limited coverage.

ED claims will be evaluated on many factors, UnitedHealthcare said, including the patient's presenting problem, the intensity of the diagnostic services performed, and other patient complicating factors.

That use of "emergent or non-emergent" took me aback. The obvious fact that the word emergency is (etymologically) emergent, had never occurred to me, much less the idea that an actual emergency should be called emergent. Urgent, yes, but emergent?

So I figured this usage was a back-formation. But a quick scan of the OED entry proved me wrong.

The top few meanings are the familiar ones: "Rising out of a surrounding medium", … , "That is in the process of issuing forth", …, "That emerges unpredictably as the result of an evolutionary process", …, "Of a nation: that is newly independent", …

But down in sense 5.b. we get "Used for 'urgent', 'pressing'", with citations including:

1706 D. Defoe Jure Divino Pref. p. i To perswade their Princes to trust them in their most emergent Occasions.

And sense 6., "Required for emergencies":

1800 Duke of Wellington Let. 24 Jan. in Dispatches (1837) I. 65 I have this day sent a supply of emergent ammunition.

Merriam-Webster's sense  1b is "calling for prompt action: URGENT". And Wiktionary's sense 2 is "Arising unexpectedly, especially if also calling for immediate reaction; constituting an emergency".

So I've learned a new word sense!




  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 1:38 pm

    "So I've learned a new word sense!" — which, being stupid, I initially read as "So I've learned a new word, Sensei".

    But more on-topic, is it therefore safe to assume that our modern "urgent" derives from "emergent" ? I haven't consulted the OED, being sure that you would already know the answer.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 1:46 pm

    Standard medicalese. Nothing to see here. Move along.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 1:50 pm

    Sp the television programme that was universally loved in Britain in the 60's was really called "Emergent Seaward 10" ? I never knew that, Dick …

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    You also sometimes see this sense of "emergent" in legal jargon, although there is regional variation and what e.g. New Jersey officially calls an "emergent motion" may well be called (less opaquely IMHO) an "emergency motion" in other jurisdictions. https://www.njcourts.gov/forms/11644_sc_emergent_appl_public_guide.pdf

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 3:19 pm

    I'm not a doctor (nor do I play on on TV) but my sense is that "urgent" and "emergent" are not quite synonyms. The case of, say, a heart transplant candidate whose condition is slowly deteriorating might be considered urgent but not emergent. A sudden heart attack in an otherwise healthy person would be both urgent and emergent.

  6. Jerry Packard said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 3:45 pm

    @GK – and the transplant candidate would be urgent but because it stems from a chronic condition, I feel it could also be considered emergent.

    Aside from the linguistics, and pardon my stripes, I am appalled that my carrier, UHC, will try to remove support from those individuals.

  7. Martha said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 3:54 pm

    I have the same sense that Gregory Kusnick has. Something that is urgent isn't necessarily an emergency.

    If you go to an urgent care clinic with an emergency, they'll call an ambulance so you can go to the emergency room. (In my area, anyway.)

    (I first heard "emergent" on ER several years ago. I seem to recall one character talking about prioritizing emergent patients. It struck my ear as odd at the time, which is why I remembered it. I'm not sure I've heard it since.)

  8. DaveK said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 5:00 pm

    In medicine, it seems that “emergency” has a specialized meaning of “a situation requiring the services of an emergency department”.

  9. John Swindle said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 5:13 pm

    As Dick Margulis said, these are familiar terms in health care. But urgent/emergent and urgency/emergency aren't quite parallel, at least in American English. Patients might have an emergency but wouldn't have an urgency unless they needed to pee a lot or maybe had pressure of speech. (Caveat: I don't play a doctor either.) Nor do signs in hospitals point to urgency care or the emergent department.

    The distinctions being drawn between emergency care and urgent care seem about right, though. Emergency care on one end of the spectrum, routine care on the other, urgent care in the middle.

  10. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 8:13 pm

    I went to the ER recently because my nerdview was out of focus. Bad choice.

  11. Thomas Rees said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 8:56 pm

    I saw “sensei”, too – maybe SENSEỊ? (Unicode U+1ECA; LATIN CAPITAL LETTER I WITH DOT BELOW)

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 4:16 am

    It may be worth mentioning that French l'urgence can mean both emergency and urgency.

  13. Jerry Packard said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 7:04 am

    'Emergent' is multi-ways ambiguous, it can mean (at least) 'unexpected and imminent', and it can mean 'arising from the interacting properties of a dynamic system.'

    So for example 'grammar as an emergent phenomenon' means that language has no fixed grammar per se, but that what we perceive as grammar arises dynamically as it is used by its users. (Paul Hopper).

  14. Orin Hargraves said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 7:35 am

    My extreme cognitive dissonance emerged from thinking that ED referred to erectile disfunction. Which is a kind of failure to arise from a surrounding medium.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    Well, if Paul Hopper really believes that "that what we perceive" is grammatical, then I don't think I would be willing to rely on his judgement !

  16. wanda said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 1:40 pm

    From the title, I thought this would be another cicada post. I'm always down for a cicada post.

  17. William Berry said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 1:51 pm

    In the novel A Deepness In The Sky, SF writer Vernor Vinge turns the usage ML notes on its head. An “emergent” (technically advanced but socially barbarous) society is called “The Emergency”.

  18. Thomas Rees said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 4:00 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    What’s wrong with “that what we perceive”? I suppose he could have written “but that that which we perceive as grammar”; I try to avoid doubled “that” if possible.
    In speech it would be clear that “what we perceive as grammar” is a phrase.
    In primary/elementary school we once had a substitute/supply teacher who wanted us to label words in a variety of sentences with their parts of speech. I marked a “that” as a conjunction, only to be told “‘That’ is a pronoun”!

  19. Viseguy said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 10:26 pm

    Emergent has far too many competing meanings to be dependably useful in an emergency, I feel. If someone writes, "This is an emergent situation", I might well respond, "Well, let's see what emerges", whereas "This is an emergency [situation]" would get my immediate attention. I don't think I ever saw emergent used in OED sense 5.b until sometime in the late aughts or teens, which seems to correspond to a slight uptick in the frequency of emergent situation as shown by the Ngram Viewer.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    June 13, 2021 @ 2:29 am

    Thomas — I should have been more explicit. There possibly are contexts in which "that what we perceive" is grammatical (tho' none come to mind as I write) but in "that what we perceive as grammar arises dynamically" I am confident that a "which" is required where the author has "what".

    Unless, of course, I have completely misunderstood the sense, and it was intended not to be parsed as "that what we perceive" (noun phrase commencing with demonstrative adjective) but "that" (conjunction) + "what we perceive" (noun phrase) where the two "that"s of the original stand in contrast to each other. Which I now think is probably the case. Mea culpa. Thank you for pointing out my error.

  21. Scott Mauldin said,

    June 13, 2021 @ 5:03 am

    This seems to follow the same semantic path as "salient". It used to just mean something that stuck out, now is coming to mean something notable, requiring attention, etc.

  22. Jerry Packard said,

    June 13, 2021 @ 7:33 am

    @PT – yes, thank you.

    I believe that [what we perceive is an illusion].

    X means that Y, but that Z.

    perfectly ok.

    @TR – 'That' is indeed a deictic pronoun (‘I like that’), but in the examples above it is called a complementizer, because it introduces a complement (embedded sentence).

  23. VVOV said,

    June 14, 2021 @ 2:49 am

    As an actual (American) doctor, I'm qualified to comment on this one!

    In medical jargon, there certainly is an "urgent / emergent" distinction. A person who comes to the E.R. with acute appendicitis (and is otherwise somewhat stable) needs an "urgent" appendectomy- we'll admit her to the hospital, start her on antibiotics, and book an operating room time sometime later today or tomorrow. In contrast, a person who just got shot in the belly and is losing liters of blood onto the E.R. floor needs to go to the operating room "emergently" – we are going to make it happen right now.

    In addition to being faster/sooner than "urgent", I think "emergent" carries the connotation that some values besides speed/urgency may be acceptably sacrificed. For example, an "emergent" procedure may involve less diligent sterile technique, or informed consent may not be obtained.

    When I first heard "emergent" as a med student, I remember finding it weird in the same way that Mark Liberman does in this post- I've also noticed patients appear confused when hearing it, and regard it as non-patient-friendly language. When speaking with people outside our field, I try to say (for example) that they need "emergency dialysis", not "emergent dialysis", etc.

  24. Martha said,

    June 14, 2021 @ 12:28 pm

    DaveK said: In medicine, it seems that “emergency” has a specialized meaning of “a situation requiring the services of an emergency department”.

    Isn't that what it means outside medicine, though? I wouldn't call something an "emergency" if I didn't need an ambulance or fire truck.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    June 14, 2021 @ 3:14 pm

    Martha, I am reasonably confident that there are emergencies with which neither an ambulance nor a fire engine could yield useful assistance. Suppose, for example, that a business has failed to make a statutory submission by a cut-off date, and is advised that unless that submission is made by end of business on the current day, it will be forced to cease trading for the remainder of the financial year. If you were the owner of that business, would you not consider that "an emergency", and do everything in your power to make the submission that same day ?

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