Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Any nurse will tell you: Not all patients have patience; sometimes it’s the nurses who have to show patience to their patients. Human failings aside, the nouns patient and patience are etymologically bound together.
Patience came first, around the beginning of the 1200s, from the Old French pacience, meaning “the willingness to calmly endure adversity and suffering” — essentially the same meaning it holds today. It derives from the Latin adjective patientem, literally “the quality of suffering,” from the verb pati “to endure, undergo.”
We didn’t have to wait long after the noun patience made its appearance in English for the adjective patient to find its way into the language. By the mid-14th century, we find English speakers being patient, “capable of enduring suffering or misfortune without complaint.”
But quickly, the focus of the word shifted from the suffering to the sufferer. Near the end of the 1300s, we start finding references to patients — as today, people who are sick or injured and being treated medically, but also sometimes just referring to people who suffer without complaint.
In those early days, the literate English speakers would have spelled the words more like the French did. Thus we find the words pacience and pacient (both the noun and the adjective) numerous times in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 1300s. Later spelling reforms changed them into the words we know today.
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