The Surprising Word Origins of Popular Professions

Some of the most familiar words in the English language had dramatically different meanings when they first started their journeys. Here we share a few professions and their unexpected etymological roots.


Doctor: from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach, to show”. Until the 1700s, being a doctor typically entailed providing religious advice or scholarly teachings.

Janitor: from the Latin ianus, meaning “entrance, passageway, gate” and also the basis for the name of the Roman guardian god of portals and entryways, Janus.

Chef: from the Latin caput, meaning “head”. The term that now refers to professional cooks broadly was originally reserved for the head, chief, or chef of the kitchen.

Auditor: from the Latin audire, meaning “to hear”. The term came to refer to clerks and examiners because their work entailed listening to and assessing a variety of accounts.

Barber: from the Latin barba, meaning “beard”.

Artist: from the Latin ars, meaning “skill, craft, business”. Until as late as the 18th century, the term primarily referred to a skill or ability that was achieved through learning, practice, and experience. Echoes of the original meaning can be seen in the naming of university degrees, such as Bachelor of Arts.

Nurse: from the Latin nutrire, meaning “to suckle, nourish”. This root also serves as the basis for words like nourish and nutritious, and came to refer to medical caretakers in the late 16th century.

Photo Credit: Drew Coffman via Flickr