The Grammarphobia Blog

How did a “caretaker” become a “caregiver”?

Q: Terminology changes, or perhaps it doesn’t. My wife has Alzheimer’s disease. When I began caring for her in 2000, I was called a “caretaker,” but now I’m a “caregiver.” When did it change, or did it?

A: We’re so sorry to hear about your wife. This has been a long haul for you, hasn’t it? We’ve both cared for elderly parents, and we know it’s not easy.

You raise an interesting question about what to call a person who looks after someone.

It’s ironic that “give” and “take” are opposites, while “caregiver” and “caretaker” mean the same thing. Such people not only give care to others, but they take care of them.

As you note, “caretaker” is the older term. It was first recorded in the mid-19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.”

The OED’s first citation for its use in writing is from The Real “Souter Johnny,” a pamphlet published by Matthew Porteous in Glasgow in 1858:

“The souter’s wife … was servant to Gilbert Brown … and … acted as nurse and care-taker to Agnes his daughter.”

(The Agnes mentioned here was the mother of the poet Robert Burns, who immortalized the souter [shoemaker] John Davidson in his long poem Tam o’ Shanter, 1790.)

The newer term “caregiver” originated in the US more than a century later. The OED defines it as “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the title of a book by Richard A. Mackey, The Meaning of Mental Illness to Caregivers and Mental Health Agents, published in 1966 as a volume in the Catholic University of America Studies in Social Work.

But “caregiver” was still a new word in London in 1988, as shown by this quote from the Independent: “The term nanny tends to be avoided, and substitutes range from babysitter to … the latest, ‘caregiver.’ ”

And we can’t resist quoting the OED’s third example, from a 2000 issue of the Daily Monitor, a newspaper in Kampala, Uganda: “Sociologists will tell you that in cultures where women are valued for traditional roles of mother and caregiver, hips are in.”

A little googling on our part indicates that those in the social services community prefer the term “caregiver” over “caretaker.”

Perhaps that’s because a “caretaker” can also be someone who takes care of property, in which case there’s not much personal “caring” involved.

Check out our books about the English language