Sunday, May 9, 2021

Patient with patience

Patience, 1540 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "You're smart, practical, patient," I said.
     "I'm patient?" she laughed, dubious.
     "Well, you're not impatient..."
     "Isn't that a flower?"
     Almost. Impatiens, with an "s" instead of a "t." A common East African plant of the balsam family, flowering in a thousand different ways, some resembling poppies, at least to my eye. Which left me musing on the word, patience. What is the connection between the regrettable discomfort with the pace of events and the flower? Perhaps it blooms early. And how do patient, the calmness in waiting, and patient, the convalescent, connect? They have to share the quality of time, right? Patients being people who wait to heal, patiently.
    Or so went my theory.
    Off to find out with the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines patient as "1. Bearing or enduring (pain, affliction, trouble, or evil of any kind) with composure, from the Latin pati, 'to suffer.'" 
     It might be a comment on the relative comfort of modern life in general and mine in particular that I would focus on the time and not the suffering. The word shows up in the early 1300s in both senses, as forbearance and a person under medical care, the latter at the end of the century in Chaucer.
     Noah Webster, in his 1828 dictionary, defines "impatience" as "uneasiness under pain or suffering" and makes this point: "Impatience is not rage, nor absolute inability to bear pain; but it implies want of fortitude, or of its exercise. It usually springs from irritability of temper." A theme he elaborates under "impatience"—"We are all apt to be impatient under wrongs; but it is a christian duty not to be impatient in sickness, or under any afflictive dispensation of Providence." The lowercase, I rush to point out, is his. As for the faith's current abandonment of forbearance for constant complaint over harms more perceived than real, well, no need to ballyhoo the obvious.   
      Samuel Johnson offers up a number of worthwhile quotes, including this, from Pope: "Fame, impatient of extremes, decays/Not more by envy than excess of praise." Yup, lot of that too.
Impatiens walleriana
      Oddly, my OED doesn't have "impatiens" in it. Nor the supplements The online Merriam-Webster traces the word to the Latin. Pati is to suffer, but patiens is the nominative for bear or endure (so impatiens is the inability to do so) and suggests its from the tendency to discharge their seed pods at touch, tracing the word to the relative yesterday of 1785. No wonder that two centuries later the OED hadn't yet let it into the charmed circle.
     Ah well, a deadline awaits, speaking of impatient, and the celebration of Mother's Day. I didn't plan a discussion of patience to fall today, just a happy accident, as motherhood and patience are often synonyms, except of course when they're not. 


  1. "Like patience on a monument." Olivia's comment in "Twelfth Night" implies self indulgence. Words can be complicated beasts.


  2. ah, serendipity, not enough of it in the world these days.


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