Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Passionately Patient Patients

Mary Cooke recently raised the following question:

My great aunt fractured her hip and some ligaments. I advised her that it would require patience on her part, since this will take a long while to heal, before she can return to her usual active lifestyle.”

My question is this: Was the term patient (the one for whom a physician is caring) coined because that virtue is needed by those injured or ill until the body recovers?”

My answer is: We have to go back farther than Modern English to find the connection between these homonyms. Both the adjective and noun patient trace their ancestry back to Latin pati “to undergo (some action), endure, suffer”.

The English words came from patiens, patientis “undergoing, enduring”, the present participle of this verb. So, a patient was originally and, I suppose, still is to some extent, someone who undergoes some action, who suffers it in the sense of tolerating and surviving it. The adjective has a very similar meaning, for a patient person is someone who tolerates and survives what is done to them.

A side note: the past participle of pati is passus “suffered”, from which the noun passio(n) “suffering” is derived. English originally borrowed this word in its Latin sense. This explains the phrase “The Passion of Christ”, referring to Christ’s suffering on the cross and the title of Mel Gibson’s remarkable motion picture about Christ. Passion is also a grand example of how much the meanings of words change with the passage of time.

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