Some history on the origin of the word “nurse”

Thomas Lawrence Long, from the University of Connecticut, has graciously provided a guest blog post on the etymology of “nurse.” I happened to see something Tom posted about Shakespeare and “nurse” and thought this would be an interesting topic to discuss here.

Because historians of health and health care are sometimes preoccupied with the slipperiness of the signifier nurse (see Monica Green’s (2000) caution concerning the term in reference to medieval and early-modern studies), a brief historical lexicography might illuminate the meanings that the word has accrued, absorbed, and may, to some extent, still carry. Here is examined the historical traces of a noun-substantive, from wet-nurse, to caretaker of children, caretaker of the sick, asexual hive bee, and health professional, in which the traces of ideologies of gender identity and gendered work appear to be retained.

The first instance in English of nurse occurred in the early thirteenth century as the Anglo-Norman nurice, derived from the fifth-century post-Classical Latin nutrice, a wet-nurse (hired to provide an infant with breast milk when the infant’s mother would not or could not do so), although by the time it entered the Middle English lexicon, it had already absorbed the figurative sense of any female caretaker of children (Oxford English Dictionary 2010). Etymologically it is related to our modern word nourish, to feed.

Already by the late fourteenth century nurse had also taken on the figurative sense of any thing or any place that nurtures or fosters a quality or condition, and by the early fifteenth century, any person who takes care of, looks after, educates or advises someone.

The earliest attested use of nurse in a strictly medical sense appears in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (ca 1616): “I will attend my husband, be his nurse, Diet his sicknesse, for it is my Office” (V.i.99). The wife as nurse (and the advantage of marriage as engaging a live-in nurse) is also apparent in the Duchess of Newcastle’s Matrimonial Trouble (1662), which contends, “That he might do [sc. marry], if it were for no other reason, but for a Nurse to tend him, if he should chance to be sick.”

Another curious figurative usage is attested to in the early nineteenth century: nurse as an entomological term, explained by the OED as “A sexually imperfect member of a community of bees, ants, etc., which cares for the larvae; a worker,” citing Kirby and Spence’s Introduction to Entomology (2nd edition): “The workers, termed by Huber nourrices, or petites abeilles (nurses), upon whom the principal labours of the hive devolve.” The Huber in question was the Swiss naturalist François Huber (1750-1831) whose Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles was published at Geneva in 1792 and translated into English in 1806. Perhaps by association the later zoological term nurse shortly came to characterize any asexual invertebrate, a spineless sexless creature.

The semantic process whereby the word nurse begins by denoting a woman hired to provide surrogate breast milk and comes to denote a sexless worker insect may be related to the religious associations of woman as healer and caretaker of the sick, particularly the ubiquitous presence of European women’s religious orders comprised of celibates (and thus, in the medieval view, sexless) devoted to the wellbeing of others.


Green, Monica H. (2000). Documenting medieval women’s medical practice. Women’s healthcare in the medieval West. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Variorum, pp. II, 322-352.

When you think of the word “nurse,” what comes to mind for you?