Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I found that in many hospitals, in order to classify patients' health conditions, standard expressions like "code red", "code blue" etc. are used. These expressions do not follow the standard "order of adjectives (adj+noun)" rule. Could you kindly explain this?

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

Compare filling in a form:

Name: Rosa

Address: Italy

Code: Red

It is an abbreviated way of giving information What is the code for this patient's condition? It is red.

In speech you can't see the punctuation but this is what is understood by it.

Imagine you are a nurse reading from a form as the patient is wheeled down the corridor. You might read out:

Sex: male.

Age: 40

Code: red

Previous history: none.

Red is serving as a category or name, rather than as an adjective. The fact that it can be used as an adjective elsewhere is irrelevant. The different categories could have been called Paper/Rock/Scissors, in which case you would say Code: Paper / Code: Rock / Code: Scissors.

share|improve this answer
Can you explain further? I don't understand what you're getting at. Are you suggesting that that is how all inverted modifier order comes about? –  Mitch Jan 28 '13 at 19:38
@Mitch No I'm not suggesting that, and that is not what OP is asking. Was the downvote necessary? I will edit my answer to make it clearer. –  Mynamite Jan 28 '13 at 20:02
An example of something similar just wasn't convincing enough. As to category/name and adjective and irrelevancy, I don't agree with that at all. I think your example is on the right track but still needs a lot more to be a justifiable explanation of the phenomenon. –  Mitch Jan 28 '13 at 20:30
@Mitch I don't understand what you mean by 'an example of something similar'. OP is talking about patients in hospital and so am I. OP asked why it was CODE RED as opposed to 'red code', as it would be if it was red flower, red door etc. The reason is, RED here is not an adjective, it is the name of the code. Hence my example of replacing it with CODE SCISSORS. 'Scissors' is not an adjective, it is a noun which is the name of the code. The code might mean 'Urgent' or 'Minor injury'. If you still disagree perhaps you can post your own answer giving your own explanation? –  Mynamite Jan 28 '13 at 21:56
What I meant was that an analogy is not an argument. At first all you gave was a a similar example: "The situation is like this other situation". If you see the similarity, then it works, if not it doesn't, that's why it needs an explanation (which I think you've supplied in your edits and comments). I un-downvoted a while ago. –  Mitch Jan 29 '13 at 1:06

Well, they aren't quite standard, though different countries are moving to standardise more firmly so new staff will already be familiar with them.

It's to be remembered that they are all deliberately concise - so they can be used quickly - and deliberately opaque - it helps that many people won't panic if they hear a warning of a bomb threat, or that a child abductor might not know that "Code Adam" or "Code Kinder" mean the child's absence has been noted.

The format could be understood simply as e.g. "Code: Blue" or "Code: Atlas" or "Code: 100" etc, where the word is stated to be a code, and then the code in question given.

Even this though is a stretch, really they're best understood as codes, as one thing that stands for another thing, outside of the normal mechanism of language.

This applies all the more to the "Doctor" codes like "Paging Dr. Firestone to third floor ICU" meaning that there's a fire or suspected fire in the third floor ICU which should be evacuated as to the evacuation plan, but without alarming other patients and visitors.


I just noticed "in order to classify patients' health conditions".

There are two types of codes, and I'm not sure which you mean. Some are used as alerts, like E.g. "Code blue" often means "We have a cardiac arrest happening", but means other things in other hospitals, "Code Adam" actually started in supermarkets but is sometimes used in hospitals to mean a child is missing.

Then triage codes differ even more at different stages and in different places, then the number, colour, name or short description ("dead/immediate/urgent/delayed" for example) are simply given.

share|improve this answer
British Rail: Would Inspector Sands please report to Platform 13. –  Andrew Leach Jan 28 '13 at 15:59
@AndrewLeach clearly if you're called Sands you should become a doctor, while if you're called Firestone you should look to rail or the theatre for employment, as it'd just cause too much trouble otherwise. –  Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 16:02
The important thing to remember is: Stay away if there's a Code Brown. –  Marcus_33 Jan 28 '13 at 16:27
Thank you very much Mr. Hanna. I work for Italian healthcare system and at the moment I'm writing an information sheet for foreign people who adress to Accident and Emergency department. –  user36629 Jan 28 '13 at 16:35
Ah, then you could clarify whether you mean the type broadcast or another type, as I'm not sure I've been talking about the correct one. –  Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 17:16

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.