The Grammarphobia Blog

The English patient

Q: My daughter and I are wondering if you can tell us why the word “patient” is both an adjective for waiting calmly as well as a noun for someone who sees a doctor.

A: The key to all this is the ultimate source of “patient,” the Latin patiens, meaning able to endure suffering. So, a patient is someone who’s suffering, and someone who’s patient can endure suffering.

Both the noun and the adjective entered English in the 14th century via the French spoken by the Anglo-Norman rulers of England.

The first citation for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from around 1350, refers to being “patient” through “tribulaciouns.” In a few decades, though, the adjective was also being used to mean able to wait calmly.

The noun “patient” showed up about the same time. Here’s a quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-95): “He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel / In houres by his magik natureel.”

Modern dictionaries define the adjective as stoical, calm, tolerant, persevering, deliberate, and so on. The noun, which still means one who receives medical treatment, has generally lost its sense of suffering (though going to the doctor still has its tribulations!).

Thanks for sending an interesting question, and for being so patient.

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