Q&A: Why are sick people called “patients”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, give me patients…

Q: Hi AWC, I was in the doctor’s waiting room the other day.

A: I hope everything’s okay.

Q: Oh yeah, it’s fine. I just like to go there sometimes to read the magazines and catch up on the gossip from 2005.

A: Fair enough.

Q: I can’t believe Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up. Can’t imagine him with anyone else.

A: Um, yeah. So do you have a question?

Q: Oh! Yes actually. So I was sitting there, catching up on the latest news about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and looking around at all the sick people got me wondering why we call someone who sees a doctor a “patient”.

A: Some of those waits can be long. You really need to be patient.

Q: That’s the reason??

A: Haha, not quite. Although it definitely started with the concept of “patience” – the original term that dates all the way back to the 1200s. It came from Old French “pacience” and the Latin “patientia” before that, as a “quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering.” 

Q: Misfortune and suffering? 

A: Yeah it was originally more about enduring nasty or tempting things. By the late 1300s, it led to the adjective “patient”, meaning “capable of enduring misfortune or suffering, without complaint.”

Q: I usually associate patience with being good at waiting. Or the card game.

A: That came later. In the late 1400s, we got the meaning of “quiet or calmness in waiting for something to happen”. The card game was named in 1816, as a game where you had to exercise patience. In the 20th century, Americans also gave it the name “Solitaire”. 

Q: Yeah, that’s the one. So, back to our doctor’s patients? I guess they probably are at the suffering end of the spectrum, right?

A: That’s true. After the arrival of the original “misfortune and suffering” version of the adjective “patient” in the late 1300s, the noun followed close behind as someone suffering or injured – eventually specifically in the capacity of being a sick person under medical treatment.  

Q: So I guess it did retain the misfortune and suffering part.

A: Yes, it definitely did more so than having anything to do with waiting. Or playing cards. 

Q: The noun seems to have become separated from the other meanings today.

A: Yeah, it was the only one that clung onto that idea of suffering in its literal sense. The other meanings of patience or being patient have gone more down the road of endurance, waiting or quiet submission.

Q: I guess those are qualities a patient must display in a doctor’s waiting room.

A: That’s right. Once you know the original meaning, it makes a lot of sense.

Q: So, it’s definitely not true that doctors are only calm because “they have a lot of patients”?

A: Haha, cute. But no.

Q: When did the term “patient zero” come about?

A: This was coined during the 1980s in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and has been rather lazily used ever since as a catchy way to refer to the origin of a virus – most recently seen during COVID.

Q: Yes, anyone who visited China in late 2019 was branded “patient zero”.

A: Exactly.

Q: All this talk of patients reminds me of when my baby nephew swallowed a bunch of coins. The doctor took an X-ray and she decided to keep him in the hospital.

A: Oh really? Why?

Q: Because she wasn’t seeing any change in him! Bahahahaaa.

A: Okay, we’re out of patience. Goodbye!

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