Science Diction: The Origin Of 'Physician'

In the 13th century, Anglo-Normans appropriated the French physique, or remedy, to coin the English physic, or medicine, which is still in dictionaries today. Science historian Howard Markel discusses how physic became physician, and the parallel evolution of the word physics.

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Unidentified Man: The alphabet has only 26 letters. With these 26 magic symbols, however, millions of words are written every day.


That means its time for this months episode of Science Diction, where talk about the origin of science words, with my guest, Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And hes also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor HOWARD MARKEL (Medicine, University of Michigan): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: How are you this week?

Prof. MARKEL: Im great. How are you?

FLATOW: Were digging out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah. Okay.

FLATOW: Whats our word this week?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, the word today is physician.

FLATOW: Physician.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Not doctor.

Prof. MARKEL: Well, you know, its funny its almost cliche when youre in a crowded theater and someone takes ill, someone will say, is there a doctor in the house. But the word doctor is actually a Latin word and later a French one, meaning anyone whos a teacher - usually of law, theology, philosophy, as well as medicine for a learned profession.

So the really precise way to call for medical attention would be to ask for a physician.

FLATOW: That makes sense.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah. It really it comes from we have to start with the Latin word physicum or physicus, and later the French word physic. And all of these words mean treatment or remedy. In around 1200, 1212 to be exact the Anglo-Normans appropriated these words for English to coin the world physic: P-H-Y-S-I-C.

And even though its rarely used today, physic can still be found in any English dictionary to define medicine or remedy?

FLATOW: Yeah, you see used an old English textbooks and things like that.

Prof. MARKEL: Sure. There are some professorships of physic at medical schools to this very day. And but, you know, it makes sense that from physic, we would get the word physician. And that meant, for centuries, a medical practitioner. They were generally university educated, and they prescribed drugs or remedies - as opposed to their formerly less distinguished colleagues, the surgeons, who work with their hands and then typically with a knife.

FLATOW: They two-timed as barbers, so...

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah well, they often trained under barbers. I mean, I just had a haircut the other day, but Im glad my barber doesnt blood let anymore. But back then, they did, yeah.

FLATOW: And so when did the word physician start being acceptable as, you know, as a doctor sort of thing?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, it began to catch on in English as early as the 1200s or the 1500s. And you see it in - the Oxford English Dictionary sites dozens of texts that it appears in, including many plays by William Shakespeare, although he liked both the word physician or doctor to describe his medical men.

But its most famous entry in the English language occurred in 1522. And that was the year that William Tyndale published the first translation of the New Testament from ancient Hebrew, Greek and Latin, into English. And so when he was translating Luke 4:23, he used the word physician instead of a Latin word medici for the famous axiom physician heal thyself. Now, in this particular parable, Jesus returns to Nazareth and he expects to be criticized by his townsmen with this phrase, which was actually a very common Hebrew axiom: for helping others in faraway places but not in ones own home.

And the point of that axiom, of course, is that we should cure ourselves of our fault before we start correcting those of others.

FLATOW: Very, very interesting. Thats a very interesting history to it.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Did you think it did when you were looking it up?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, I didnt know quite about the New Testament, but yeah, I had a feeling it had a very interesting history. And it turned out that way, yeah.

FLATOW: All right, Howard, thanks. Thanks for joining us. Well look forward to your next word.

Prof. MARKEL: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: And thats the last word from Howard Markel, whos professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

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