The meaning of the English word nurse has changed since its origins. The word is derived from the Latin word nutrire meaning ‘to nourish’ and nutrix meaning ‘nursing mother’. The original meaning of the term was what would be termed wet nurse today. A wet nurse is a lactating woman who breastfeeds a baby which is not her own. Centuries ago, wet nurses were paid to feed the newborns of wealthy women who chose not to do so themselves or were unable to do so themselves.
The Latin word nutrix became nourrice in French. The French term nourrice was also shared by English and gradually underwent changes to become nurse eventually. The meaning also broadened firstly to mean ‘a woman who cares for young children’ and then ‘a woman who cares for the sick’. By the 19th century nursing began to mean the training of people who care for the sick.
There are several variations on the terms used in English to describe the levels of nursing depending on the English-speaking country you look at. Terms have also changed over the years as the training of nurses has moved from hospital-based training to diploma and degree courses. I am a hospital-trained nurse (trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney 1979 to 1982). We started as PCBs (preclinical block) then junior nurses, senior nurses (both student nurse levels) and finally Sisters when we completed our training. The title of ‘Sister’ for all Registered Nurses in Australia was confusing to nurses in the UK where ‘Sister’ is the Ward Manager and the remaining nurses are called ‘Staff Nurses’. These days we call ourselves Registered Nurses and usually refer to ourselves using our first names.
Now to the Romance languages. The words for nurse are similar:
French: infirmier (male nurse) infermière (female nurse) Spanish: enfermero (male nurse) enfermera (female nurse)
Italian: infermiere (male nurse) infermiera (female nurse)
Portuguese: enfermeiro (male nurse) enfermeira (female nurse)
Romanian: infirmier (male nurse) infirmieră (female nurse)
I think it’s interesting to note that the terms all seem to relate to the word infirm meaning sick or weak. The word infirm comes from the Latin word infirmus meaning in- not + firmus strong, firm. English uses infirmary to mean a place where the sick are tended. These days it often means a small dispensary in a hospital.
Translations of common terms
French: infirmière diplômée
Spanish: enfermero/a diplomado (a)
Portuguese: enfermeira diplomada
Italian: infermiere (-a) generico(-a) diplomato (-a)
Romanian: asistentă medicală
French: la nourrice
Spanish: la nodriza
Portuguese: ama de leite
Ward Manager / Sister (UK) / Nursing Unit Manager (Aus,USA)
French: infirmière chef
Spanish: enfermero/a jefe/a
Portuguese: enfermeira chefe
Romanian: Asistentă cap
District Nurse (UK) / Community Nurse (Aus)/Visiting Nurse
French: infirmière visiteuse
Spanish: enfermero domiciliario -ra domiciliaria
Italian: infermiere (-a) che fa visite a domicilio
French: élève infirmier
Italian: allievo (-a) infermiere (-a)