We all owe a duty of care to those who heal, nurture, scrub and ...

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A HANDFUL OF WORDS

We all owe a duty of care to those who heal, nurture, scrub and carry

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Nurses embrace at the Cremona Hospital, southeast of Milan, during Italy's lockdown. After weeks of struggle, they're being hailed as heroes. But Italian healthcare workers are exhausted from their war against the coronavirus.
They're all nightingales Nurses embrace at the Cremona Hospital, southeast of Milan, during Italy's lockdown. After weeks of struggle, they're being hailed as heroes. But Italian healthcare workers are exhausted from their war against the coronavirus.
Image: AFP/Paulo Miranda

Much time, research and discussion has been devoted to tracing the origin of the novel coronavirus. Much less attention has been paid to the origins of the medical professionals fighting this enemy on the frontlines.

Many of these heroes and champions have already sacrificed their own lives in the battle to save the afflicted. SA is mourning the loss of brave and brilliant Gita Ramjee, the doctor who died this week after an extraordinary life spent healing others.

In language as well as in life, doctors are as revered as priests, imams and rabbis. The word doctor comes from Medieval Latin and originally meant a religious teacher, scholar or adviser. That in turn, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, came from the classical Latin verb docere: to make something seemly and fitting and right.

Doctors can’t make everything right for everyone all the time, but they certainly try.

The use of doctor as a title for a practitioner of medicine did not become common until the late 1500s. Previously, those who practised healing arts were called leeches. This seems a bit unfair but the application of leeches to the skin of a sick person (to suck their blood) and the cutting of patients with unsanitised blades (to draw even more blood) were common tricks of the medical trade in the days of Tudor roses.

Without the constant nurturing provided by overworked nurses, no patient would survive between visits by equally overworked doctors.

When medical science was in its infancy it was thought that bloodletting would draw out disease or infection. Now we have antibiotics, and hopefully soon we will have an efficacious treatment for Covid-19 that does not involve a steak knife.

In between leeches and doctors, there was a phase where healers were called physics, which at least was a step up from a sharp-toothed slug clamped to the throat.

Nurses, just as essential as doctors to the wellbeing of humankind, get their job title from the Latin nutrix, meaning a wet-nurse who breastfed other women’s children. This name derives from the verb nutrire – to suckle.

It’s a lot better than being called a leech, at least. 

People – both men and women – who took care of the sick and injured without necessarily breastfeeding them became more widely known as nurses thanks to saintly statistician Florence Nightingale, who brightened many a sad soldier’s nights during the Crimean War and became known as the mother of modern nursing.

The words nourishment, nutrition and nurture all come from the same family as nurses. Without the constant nurturing provided by overworked nurses, no patient would survive between visits by equally overworked doctors.

Let us not forget those who fight alongside doctors and nurses and who risk the same perils – the often overlooked orderlies who fetch, carry, clean, lift, scrub, arrange and – as their name implies – bring order into the chaos that might otherwise overtake hospitals, particularly during epidemics.

Orderly was originally a military term, the shortened version of orderly corporal. This was the soldier who carried orders from the commanders to the fighters. 

A not insignificant task. Imagine if orders had been miscommunicated. “Ah sorry, Inkosi Shaka, I thought you said Illovo, not Isandlwana!”

In the early 1800s, the term orderly was extended to the equally important personnel who keep things running smoothly in hospitals.

Whether soldier or medical mainstay, those called orderlies got their name as a back-formed noun from the adjective orderly. This was first used in the 1570s and meant, as it still does, “arranged in order” or “observant of rule or discipline; not unruly”.

Let us not let down the medical professionals who risk their lives for us. Let us all be as orderly as orderlies, and nurture each other until our ailing world is healed.

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